The stillness of a hot, sweltering summer afternoon will always take me back to my childhood in India. I can feel the warm wind on my skin and almost taste mangoes frozen with ice chips and my favourite ice-cream flavour ‘Calypso Punch’. I am partial to books that are set in those months of heat, where one’s entire being is focussed on keeping still and keeping cool.
Set in 1960s South Carolina, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is set in that Southern heat and is the coming of age story of 14-year-old Lily Owens. Lily’s mother is dead and keeping her out of trouble with her temperamental father is her nanny of sorts, Rosaleen, who is black. In the small town at a time of racial turmoil, Rosaleen gets into trouble for being vocal about black peoples’ rights and ends up in jail. Lily decides to do the inevitable – leave her abusive father T Ray and escape with Rosaleen. The only place that they know to go to is to August Boatwright’s honey bee farm, a connection from the only semblance of Lily’s mother’s life she has, a honey jar label with a black Mother Mary and the name of the honey farm on it.
The honey farm takes these fugitives in and so begins Lily’s journey of self-awareness, love, honey harvesting, religion, and lessons in people reading. Apart from what her mother’s story was, Lily learns to look outwards, at other people, and the greater part of the book shows the entwining of Lily and Rosaleen’s life with those of the Boatwright sisters – May, June, August. There are many instances of casual racism and the distinction between white and black is usually presented through Lily’s eyes. Growing up as a white woman amongst black people and Lily’s awareness of it is a poignant reminder of the differences that are made by man.
“Up until then I'd thought that white people and colored people getting along was the big aim, but after that I decided everybody being colorless together was a better plan. I thought of that policeman, Eddie Hazelwurst, saying I'd lowered myself to be in this house of colored women, and for the very life of me I couldn't understand how it had turned out this way, how colored women had become the lowest ones on the totem pole. You only had to look at them to see how special they were, like hidden royalty among us. Eddie Hazelwurst. What a shitbucket.”
The prose is lilting in its description of the nature of honey harvesting and the quiet farm life and picks up pace at the bits with violence, sexism, and racism. The fact that the author tells it from the point of view of a 14-year-old still struggling to find her identity gives the book a remarkable edge (and some very creative swear words)! Her opinion of the world she lives in and the others that inhabit her life changes throughout the course of the book and takes the reader on a journey of sorts, where there is a simpler world at the other end. Another unusual creative input from the author is the opening ‘bee related’ quote at the start of each chapter, which sets the tone for the events to follow.
As a fantastic debut and a very well concocted story, and for a tender account of love and life and colour, this is one of the most uplifting books I have read in a while.
Sue Monk Kidd was raised in the small town of Sylvester, Georgia, a place that deeply influenced the writing of her first novel The Secret Life of Bees. She graduated from Texas Christian University in 1970 and later took creative writing courses at Emory University and Anderson College, as well as studying at Sewanee, Bread Loaf, and other writers conferences.
Reviewed by Udita Banerjee.