The Secret Life of Bees… Growing up fast in South Carolina

“You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside.”

Sue Monk Kidd’s coming of age novel, The Secret Life of Bees is set in 1964 just as the voting rights act is passed.

Lily, the 14-year old protagonist lives with her father, T-Ray, a white peach farmer in Sylvan, South Carolina. T-Ray is cold and abusive. According to his account, Lily’s mother, Deborah, was killed when a gun four-year-old Lily was holding went off. Lily has been raised by Rosaleen, their African-American housekeeper.

Following a run-in with a pack of local racists, Rosaleen is beaten and hospitalized. T-Ray tells Lily that Rosaleen will likely be killed. Fearing this possibility, Lily breaks Rosaleen out of the hospital. They go on the run to Tiburon, a location from the back of a photo of Deborah.

In Tiburon, an image of the black Madonna on a honey jar leads them to August Boatwright, a retired teacher and bee keeper. Though Lily didn’t consider herself a racist at the beginning of the novel, she held assumptions about people of color that are repeatedly challenged in the Boatwright home and in her overall experience in Tiburon.

“Honeybees depend not only on physical contact with the colony, but also require its’ social companionship and support. Isolate a honeybee from her sisters and she will soon die.”

August and her sisters, May and June are part of a contingent of African-American women who call themselves the Daughters of Mary. The Daughters practice a form of Catholicism/Goddess worship with a three foot tall black Mary statue. They support, love, protect and defend each other and Lily and Rosaleen are adopted into their fold.

Lily’s initial interactions with June, her understanding that June dislikes her primarily for being white, gives her some inkling of what it is to be defined for another person by only the color of your skin. Lily is exposed, albeit in a very limited sense, to prejudicial treatment. She experiences what it is to be the other.

It is in Tiburon with August and the daughters, that Lily begins to blossom. She learns the art of bee keeping from August and finds “mothers” for the first time. She begins to believe in the possibility of a future beyond what she’d expected in Sylvan. We see Lily’s foil in the character of Zach, a handsome and intelligent young man who Lily falls in love with despite believing it impossible to be attracted to someone who isn’t white.

“We can’t think of changing our skin color. Change the world. That’s how we gotta think.”

It’s through Zach that we see who Lily has the potential to be under different circumstances. Zach has never been without the nurturing and love of the Boatwright’s and aspires to be a lawyer even though he’s never met a black attorney. While he’s conscious of his circumstances as an African American in the mid-twentieth century south, this knowledge and his experiences solidify his role as a change agent.

“It is the peculiar nature of the world to go on spinning no matter what sort of heartbreak is happening.”

Ultimately Lily abandons her role as the frightened, unloved daughter of T-Ray and rejects the prejudices of her childhood in Sylvan. Her struggle for her own self-worth and latent potential and the viable resolutions offered for the conflicts she faces all coalesce to make The Secret Life of Bees an intensely satisfying read.

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