I only have two words to describe The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd: Beautiful and Amazing.
Fourteen year old Lily Owens lives with her father, T. Ray, on a peach farm in South Carolina. Her mother died when she was four years old and Lily still lives with the foggy memories of what happened. When T. Ray tells her that her mother didn’t just leave him, but left her as well, Lily runs away desperate to prove him wrong.
All Lily has of her mother is a picture of her, a pair of white gloves and a wooden picture of a black Mary Madonna with the words Tiburon, South Carolina on the back.
After Rosaleen, Lily’s stand in mother, is arrested because of an altercation with three of the town’s biggest racists, they both run away to Tiburon. There, Lily is determined to find out anything she can about her mother.
In Tiburon, Lily and Rosaleen meet August Boatwright, the person who makes the honey with the black Madonna label on it, and Lily believes she can tell her more about her mother. August welcomes them both into her home and they enter a wonderful world of beekeeping and honey making mixed in with a unique form of spirituality.
I loved this book! It was such an engaging story and the writing was wonderful. I was completely drawn in by this story- by these strong and loving women- and the power of love to transform lives.
I loved the character of August Boatwright! She was so strong and wise. I respected that she chose never to marry because she loved her freedom, which is different from June who didn’t want to marry because she was afraid to be hurt again. August chose a life of freedom and independence and with her freedom, she nurtures, loves and gives to others. She is a special lady!
I also loved how beekeeping and honey making drew Lily in and allowed her to be a part of something. I was also happy that Rosaleen was included and brought into the family atmosphere. For the most part, she worked in the kitchen and developed a friendship with May, but both Lily and Rosaleen blossomed in this nurturing and supportive environment.
And then there is the black Mary Madonna who played such a key role in the lives of these women. August tells Lily that the image of Mary on the honey jar is of Mary of Breznichar of Bohemia. She clearly represents the female divine in this story. In many ways, Mary led Lily to Tiburon and to August. The Mary Statue in the front room of their home is actually a figurehead from an old ship, but the power lies in her story. She is called “Our Lady of Chains” because she broke her chains and she helps those who look to her to break free from their chains, in addition to offering comfort, love and courage. I saw Mary’s influence in their lives as symbolic and connected to her story -which was meant to be remembered- as they applied it personally in their lives. A person should remember where they came from, know who they are and move forward in love and strength.
South Carolina 1964
The story takes place in South Carolina in 1964 just after the Civil Rights Act is signed into law. We see the racism that existed at that time: the most obvious being Rosaleen’s encounter with the three men on her way to register to vote. We hear of riots in different parts of the South at that time and there is real concern about the upcoming local visit of actor Jack Palance who is “… bringing a colored woman with him.” p 154. Add to this that Lily realizes she herself has prejudices she didn’t know she had which are brought to the surface when she starts staying with August. She sees this in herself, experiences what its like to be on the other side and realizes that skin color doesn’t matter-people do- and her budding romance with Zack was very sweet.
Despite everything in her life, Lily reaches out in hope. She runs away with Rosaleen, meets August and finds what she was looking for: a mother’s love. This is very much a journey of self discovery and healing for Lily and I was happy to watch it all play out.
I am going to stay with The Secret Life of Bees just a little longer. In my next post I will compare this wonderful book to the movie and discuss the similarities and differences. That should be fun!
Now I would love to hear from you. Have you read this story? If so, what did you think of it? Tell me in the comments below.