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The Secret Life of Bees

by Sue Monk Kidd

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User Rating 3.5 Star Rating (3 Reviews)

By

The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

© Viking

Viking, 2002

Lily Melissa Owens, The Secret Life of Bees' 14-year-old narrator, has a special relationship with bees. At night, they squeeze through the cracks of her bedroom wall by the hundreds and fly circles around her room until the air itself is pulsating with the beat of their wings. Finally, when she can no longer stand being the only witness to this apiary wonder, she rushes to awaken the only person available - her father. But the bees don't stick around and T. Ray, who is not amused with this apparent prank, promises to get out the Martha Whites if Lily wakes him again.

"Martha Whites were a form of punishment only T. Ray could have dreamed up."

T. Ray Owens is the hateful, peach-farming antagonist of Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees. When T. Ray is feeling particularly mean towards Lily, he pulls the Martha White grits down from the pantry and pours an anthill-sized pile on the kitchen floor for Lily to kneel in. It's a unique torture that inflicts Lily's knees with hundreds of tiny stinging wounds that turn into tiny blue welts over time.
But the Martha Whites are hardly the worst aspect of Lily's life with T. Ray. It's 1964 and T. Ray and Lily farm peaches on the outskirts of Sylvan South Carolina. For Lily, it's an existence that is as emotionally impoverished as it is materially. When not the object of the ridicule of her peers at school, Lily is forced to work T. Ray's roadside peach stands, a job as thankless as anything else she does for T. Ray.

"T. Ray refused to let me bring books out [to the peach stand] and read, and if I smuggled one out, say, Lost Horizon, stuck under my shirt, somebody like Mrs. Watson from the next farm, would see him at church and say, 'Saw your girl in the peach stand reading up a storm. You must be proud.' And he would half kill me.

"What kind of person is against reading? I think he believed it would stir up ideas of college, which he thought a waste of money for girls, even if they did, like me, score the highest number a human being can get on their verbal aptitude test."

Did I mention T. Ray being a monstrous and abusive father? There is no apparent love in his heart for Lily whatsoever, and living with him only deepens the ubiquitous pain of her motherless existence.
Deborah Owens' death is a source of great anguish and mystery for the confused adolescent, a memory from when she was four that she still can't quite get her head around. Why was her mother throwing clothes into a suitcase that day when T. Ray stormed angrily into the bedroom, and more importantly, when the shot was fired, was it really Lily who had held the gun?

Lily's only true friend is Rosaleen, a large black peach-worker who T. Ray brought up to the house to care for Lily when her mother died. An ill-fated run-in between Rosaleen and the meanest racist in Sylvan and a framed picture of the black Madonna, one of Lily's mother's few remaining possessions, set the pair on the road to discovery and rebirth.

In Tiburon, South Carolina they meet the three black calendar sisters: May, June, and August, August Boatwright, the beekeeper who imparts to Lily the secrets of the Black Madonna, mother to thousands. It's from August that Lily unexpectedly receives the keys to her mother's mystery and learns the secrets of beekeeping:
"'This is where I spent my summers,' she said. 'You see, the house belonged to my grandparents, and all this property around it. Big Mama kept bees, too, right out there in the same spot they're in today. Nobody around here had ever seen a lady beekeeper till her. She liked to tell everybody that women made the best beekeepers, 'cause they have a special ability built into them to love creatures that sting.'"

In The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd wraps a coming-of-age tale around a search for one's mother, plunks it down into the racially-charged South Carolina during the civil rights movement and sets it all alight with a dose of feminine spirituality. The debut novel from a writer of nonfiction, The Secret Life of Bees is at times a bit honey sweet for my tastes. Also, the only male character that is truly fleshed out in the novel is T. Ray's, and well, he's no fun is he? It is, however, an inspirational feminist tale with strong female characters. And while it has already proven its mettle as a best-selling novel with universal appeal, it will particularly enchant the female reader. And more particularly, female beekeepers.

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