Who knew about ‘The Secret Life of Bees’?

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When I put it out on social media a couple of weeks ago that I was about to start reading this book, I had a number of comments back from people telling me how much they had enjoyed it, so I started with high expectations. I was not disappointed. I was only puzzled at how I’d missed it first time around, but then it was published in 2001, the year my first child was born, which explains a lot! I was totally absorbed by this book, as were my fellow book club members – I read it very quickly because it was so hard to put down. It is a very female book in the sense that it is full of strong women, so perfect to be reading around the time of International Women’s Day.

The central character is fourteen year-old Lily. When we first meet her she is living a lonely, loveless existence on her father’s peach farm; we learn that her mother died when she was four years old in a mysterious accident with a gun which seems to have involved Lily pulling the trigger. Lily lives with her father, whom she calls T. Ray, an indication of the distance and lack of filial affection in their relationship. It’s worse than that though; T.Ray’s treatment of his daughter is borderline abusive. He is emotionally and physically cruel, administering harsh physical treatment for what he perceives to be her misdemeanours, and exploiting her labour. Lily’s only friend is the black maid Rosaleen.

Lily longs for her dead mother and craves the affection she feels sure her mother would have given her. She spends time imagining what her mother was like and cherishes the small trinkets which serve as her only memories. One of these trinkets is a picture of a black Madonna with the words ‘Tiburon S.C.’ written on the back. It transpires that Tiburon is another town in South Carolina, some distance from Sylvan where Lily lives.

The novel is set in the Summer of 1964, when the Civil Rights Act had just been made law, giving people of colour the right to vote throughout the United States. Whilst racial equality had been affirmed in law, it was not yet fully accepted in the wider society. Rosaleen walks into town to register to vote and is involved in an incident with some local thugs. She is beaten up by these men, but finds herself arrested and put in jail. Her injuries are so severe that she is sent to hospital. For Lily this is the final straw and she sees this as an opportunity for them both to escape their repressed life. She gets Rosaleen out of the hospital from under the nose of the guard who is meant to be watching her, and the two women make their way to Tiburon by hitchhiking and walking.

Lily has no plan beyond getting to Tiburon and does not even know what she intends to do or what she expects to find when she gets there, but there is no doubt she feels drawn there and, in reality has no other option. Through a series of chance encounters, Lily and Rosaleen find themselves at ‘the pink house’, the home of the calendar sisters, August, June and May, three black women who run a cottage industry from their home, producing honey. The label on their jars has a picture of the same black Madonna that Lily has among her mother’s possessions. It turns out that the sisters also belong to a group called The Daughters of Mary, a small religious coterie which worships Mary, mother of Jesus (manifested in the black Madonna, of whom they also have a statue in their home), as the source of divine love and power.

The sisters take in Lily and Rosaleen and they spend the summer with them, working for their board and lodging. Over the weeks and months, Lily begins to uncover some truths about her mother and her own story, which are not easy for her to bear. Lily also learns what it is to be loved as her relationship with one of the sisters, August, develops, and she is accepted by the other sisters and their companions.

This is a wonderfully written book with a powerful sense of time and place. The setting, hot, sultry South Carolina is beautifully conveyed. It is not a light book; there are some dark and sinister undertones here with the racial violence, child cruelty and social injustice, but it is ultimately a hopeful and uplifting book. Through Lily, Rosaleen and the sisters, truth and goodness ultimately prevail.

I loved this and would recommend it highly. Great bedtime reading, great holiday reading, great anytime reading, this is storytelling at its best.

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