Set in the American South of 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act and intensifying racial unrest, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees is a story of coming-of-age, the ability of love to transform our lives and the longing for the universal feminine divine. Kidd describes the power of women coming together creating a sanctuary of true family and home where the wounds of loss and betrayal can heal.
Men play a secondary role in the story, often representing violence, aggression, and repression. If not, they are a mere ‘addendum’ to the universal feminity which represents the wit, the good, the mysterious divine warmth and comfort which one also finds back in the life of a bee hive: The queen bee, and all worker bees are female ensuring the survival of the hive. The few male drones just sit around waiting to mate with the queen.
The story is told through the eyes and heart of Lily, radiating wit, simplicity, naivety, but also a longing for warmth and love at many different levels (“Eskimos have thirty-two names for love”, Lily says), we often find back in the heart and mind of a teenager.
Isolated on a South Carolina peach farm with T.Ray, a neglectful and harsh farther, fourteen-year-old Lily Owens spent much of her life longing for her mother who died amid mysterious circumstances when Lily was four. Her father claims Lily accidentally killed her mum, instilling a deep and endless feeling of guilt.
Lily is raised by Rosaleen, her proud, witty and outspoken African-American nanny. When Rosaleen attempts to exercise her newly won right to vote, she is attacked by three racists and thrown in jail. Lily helps Rosaleen to escape, and together, they run away. One runs away from jail, the other from the constant fear of T.Ray’s repressive behaviour.
Lily and Rosaleen flee to Tiburon – South Carolina, a name written on the back of a cryptic picture featuring a black Virgin Mary, one of the few belongings Lily has of her mother. Three black beekeeping sisters take the odd pair into their home, into their circle of wise and colorful women, and into their hearts.
The novel is written in a simple and plain, yet witty and funny language. The language of a teenager, featuring every day analogies and comparisons with a depth that makes you think about it all for a while:
|Every human being on the face of the earth has a steel plate in his head. If you lie down now and then, and get still as you can, it will slide open like elevator doors, letting in all the secret thoughts that have been standing around so patiently, pushing the button for a ride to the top.|
The real troubles in life happen when those hidden doors stay closed for too long. But that’s just my opinion.
|I hope I would get just a few minutes for a private conference with God. I wanted to say, “Look I know you meant well creating the world and all, but how could you let it get away from you like this? How come you couldn’t stick with your original idea of paradise?”|
Several passages are poetic, idealistic. Often when it comes to the female powers:
|August closed her eyes, used her fingers to smooth out the skin on her forehead. I saw a shiny film across her eyes – the beginning of tears. Looking at her eyes, I could see a fire inside them. It was a hearth fire you could depend on, you could draw up to and get warm by if you were cold, or cook something on that would feed the emptiness in you. I felt like we were all adrift in the world, and all we had was the wet fire in August’s eyes. But it was enough.|
The simple and straightforward humor is hilarious, with a cynical and sharp after-tongue:
|Whenever I opened a book, T.Ray said, “Who do you think you are, Julius Shakespeare?” The man sincerely thought that was Shakespeare’s first name, and if you think I should have corrected him, you are ignorant about the art of survival..|
|If you’d put her husband’s brain into a bird, the bird would fly backward.|
|It took me a month to get over the shock of having life possibilities.|
If you read the book like you eat a hamburger, you will miss passage like this:
|The door closed. So quiet it amounted to nothing but a snap of air, and that was the strangeness of it, how a small sound like that could fall across the whole world.|
I suggest you consume the book like you would eat an ice cream, the last ice cream you would ever have in this life. Little bit by little bit.
Otherwise, you would not see what a powerful writer Kidd is, when she combine it all: the poetic, the humor, the feminity, the bees, the impressionistic writing style, all in one treasured passages:
|The woman moved along a row of white boxes that bordered the woods beside the pink house, a house so pink it remained a scorched shock on the back of my eyelids after I looked away. She was tall, dressed in white, wearing a pith helmet with veils that floated across her face, settled around her shoulders and trailed down her back. She looked like an African bride.|
Lifting the tops off the boxes, she peered inside, swinging a tine bucket of smoke back and forth. Clouds of bees rose up and flew wreaths around her head. Twice, she disappeared in the fogged billows, then gradually re-emerged like a dream rising up from the bottom of the night.
We stood across the road, Rosaleen and I, temporarily mute. Me out of the awe for the mystery playing out and Rosaleen because her lips were sealed with Red Rose snuff.
You can find this book and more of my favorites in my library.
More recommended books from The Road.
Thank you "E" for the gift. (No, not that "E", the other "E"!)