Sometimes, a thing that you like quite a bit feels cheapened by someone you don’t respect liking it too. This is especially true if the thing in question is rather unknown or underground. Multiply this by a million and you can understand how a formerly underground band, suddenly thrust into the limelight on magazine covers and tv shows, palls in your ears once teenie boppers bounce around to the tunes while waiting in line at a Chik-Fil-A. It is like having your secret favorite novel turned into a movie, or worse yet a made-for-TV movie. On Lifetime.
And so, imagine my revulsion when I drew from the library shelf a print copy of Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel The Secret Life of Bees and my eyes fell upon the “Good Morning America Read This!” logo. I was pulling the print version to transcribe certain passages I thought demonstrated Kidd’s resplendent prose style and instead found the generic stamp of average Americana. It was as if Katie Couric had spit in my face. I didn’t even want to touch it.
I overcame this knee-jerk reaction as well as the bevy of blurbs on the back of the book from the cream of the crop of middlebrow women’s fiction (Anita Shreve, Anne Rivers Siddons, Connie May Fowler). While I had been enjoying the book I’d been listening to so far, I was only a little less than halfway into it and this sudden knowledge that it was a feted, blurb rich, book club title made me leery. The first few chapters are elegiac, haunting, and filled with violence just waiting to break out. I didn’t want the book to devolve into an Oprah-styled group hug.
While there did turn out to be quite a bit of bonding and breaking through painful memories and defense mechanisms to finally truly feel, The Secret Life of Bees is more than just one of those coming of age mother and daughter stories. To start with, we learn fairly early in the book that our narrator, fourteen year old Lily Owens, killed her mother, accidentally shooting her during one of her parent’s fights when she was only four. She tells us like this:
My mother died when I was four years old. It was a fact of life, but if I brought it up, people would suddenly get interested in their hangnails and cuticles, or else distant places in the sky, and seem not to hear me. Once in a while, though, some caring soul would say, “Just put it out of your head, Lily. It was an accident. You didn’t mean to do it.”
The book is ostensibly told by a child, yet the language and poetry of the novel belies the childhood viewpoint. It is quite beautifully written and quite sad, yet the style, syntax, and concepts are quite beyond a fourteen-year-old child’s capacity. That’s one of the great flaws of many novels of youth, that the adult behind the narrator can be too clearly discerned. And you can hear the adult in The Secret Life of Bees, but the prose is so well crafted that it’s never intrusive, never distracting.
Probably one or two moments in your whole life you will hear a dark whispering spirit, a voice coming from the center of things. It will have blades for lips and will not stop until it speaks the one secret thing at the heart of it all. Kneeling on the floor, unable to stop shuddering, I heard it plainly. It said, You are unlovable, Lily Owens. Unlovable. Who could love you? Who in this world could ever love you?
While Lily constantly is tortured with guilt about her mother, the incident tainting and poisoning every moment of her life, there remains a hint of suspicion about that day. Her abusive father who she calls T. Ray “because ‘Daddy’ never fit him,” is often described as a liar, and so we are left wondering if maybe it wasn’t him who killed her. The death is described merely as Lily picking up the gun after her mother dropped it, then a loud noise, and then nothing. Its centrality in her life infuses the book with a sweet melancholy:
That night I lay in bed and though about dying and going to be with my mother in paradise. I would meet her saying “Mother, forgive. Please forgive” and she would kiss my skin till it grew chapped and tell me I was not to blame. She would tell me this for the first ten thousand years.
She was all I wanted. And I took her away.
She fantasizes about her mother constantly, at one point finding a pair of her gloves in the attic, stuffing them with cotton balls, and sleeping with them, holding them close. The picture of a Black Madonna with “Tiburon, S.C.” written on the back of it eventually gives her a direction when she runs away from home.
What prompts her to run is the arrest and beating of her “stand-in-mother,” the black woman Rosaleen after the woman insults three of the town’s vicious racists on her way to register to vote. There is an homage here to Huck Finn in the story of a young adolescent fleeing an abusive father with an older black person also in flight. The similarities are more than just that, however. Both novels take place in times of social upheaval due to race relations, Twain’s book after the Civil War and Kidd’s after the signing of the Civil Rights Act.
When they get to Tiburon, they are taken in by the Boatwright sisters, May, June, and August. The oldest, August, is the one in charge, the beekeeper and proprietor of Black Madonna Honey. May is slightly touched, ready to burst into tears at any moment. She became this way at the death of her twin April, who killed herself at the sorrows of the world. June is a bit of a mystery, a cello playing hospice worker who taught English at the black high school, and the slowest one to warm to Lily.
Critics who complain about the implausibility of some of the story’s coincidences in its second half miss the point that the story has the fable qualities inherent in southern gothics. That Lily should make it to Tiburon with so little incident, that she should find the proprietors of Black Madonna Honey, that they should take her in, and their previous connection to her life should come clear are not simply plot conveniences or the contrivances of a poor writer. Instead, we are treated to a story that draws equally from fairy tales, folk tales, religious themes, the science of beekeeping, and classics of southern literature. In Lily’s observations on the race relations in small southern towns, we hear an older Scout Finch, another motherless girl raised by her father during racial strife.
Each chapter begins with a quote from a book regarding beekeeping informing us as to that chapter’s thematic breakdown, introducing us to how the house and its denizens mirrors that of a hive. When August tells Lily stories, she either tells of the sisters or of her family, livening these with instructive folk tales. The story is as old as the hills, the quest, the search for the missing parent, the establishing of a new home away from our old, the discovery of ourselves.
And so, even if the book has been hailed by a veritable who’s who of unimaginative critics and writers who tread similar ground, it transcends that category by the nature of its inspiration. The referential aspects of the story are woven so finely into the warp and woof of the tale that they ease smoothly into your consciousness to rest gently there.
Jenna Lamia, the reader, has a sweet, high little southern accent that sounds just like a child. Lamia is the kind of reader you want for a book like this, a voice that matches the softness of the narrative and which captures the innocent ignorance of children. She makes a book that in and of itself is quite good into something truly magical and beautiful, taking the book up to a new level.