Monday, February 25, 2013

327 (2013 #11). The Secret Life of Bees

by Sue Monk Kidd,
read by Jenna Lamia

I first read this book in 2004, with my book club in Washington state.  I remembered loving the book back then, so when I realized my university library had the audiobook, I had to listen to it.

What a joy that was!  Jenna Lamia has the perfect voice for fourteen-year-old Lily Melissa Owens, the narrator and protagonist.  I was not surprised when I realized Lamia also voiced Skeeter in the excellent The Help audiobook.  Lamia's got circa-1960s Southern girls down pat!

The action in the book takes place entirely in July and August, 1964, and entirely in South Carolina.  Lily blames her four-year-old self for her mother Deborah's death, an accidental shooting while her parents were arguing.  Her father, whom she calls T. Ray, is cruel, neglectful, and aloof.  The only person who seems to care about lonely Lily is the family's black maid, Rosaleen.

While they are heading into town from T. Ray's peach orchard, Rosaleen "disrespects" some white men, and she and Lily are arrested.  T. Ray gets Lily out of jail, but Rosaleen is beaten by her "victims" while she is there.  Lily decides to run away from home, and spirits Rosaleen out of the hospital where she's been taken for treatment of her beating injuries.  They hitch a ride to (fictional) Tiburon, South Carolina, because that's what's written on the back of a picture of a Black Madonna that, along with a photograph and a pair of white cotton gloves, are the only things Lily has left that were her mother's.

Eventually Lily and Rosaleen track down the source of the Black Madonna picture - a trio of beekeeping sisters who make honey with that image on the label:  August, June, and May Boatwright, who take Lily and Rosaleen in.

Two major parts of the story are the details on beekeeping and honey making (author Sue Monk Kidd obviously did her research, and quotes from many of her printed sources as the beginning of each chapter), and the veneration of Mary, the Mother of God.  The Boatwright sisters have an old ship's figurehead that has been worshiped by past generations as "Our Lady of Chains," and a group of local women called the "Daughters of Mary" have religious services centering on her.

Black Madonna of Czestochowa - Work found at
CC BY-SA 3.0
There is no "Black Madonna of Breznichar in Bohemia" as referred to in the story (page 139), but there is an Our Lady of Czestochowa, Poland, whose image looks nearly identical to the label on the honey on the audiobook cover.

I loved the references in the story that evoked my own memories of 1964 (and a few years later):  besides the white cotton gloves mentioned above, there was going to charm school, the dyed biddies (baby chicks) for sale before Easter at the grocery stores, the smell of cold cream, bomb drills and fallout shelters at school, President Johnson and Lady BirdWalter Cronkite and Ozzie and Harriet on TV, holy cards, bottling plant locations printed on the bottoms of Coke bottles, and the eternal flame at JFK's grave.

There's a lot of humor in the book.  Lily thinks about a not-so-Christian preacher, "Pious people have always gotten on my nerves." (page 44).  And, when dessert in one meal is cold Cokes and salted peanuts (you're supposed to put the peanuts into the Coke),

"I wanted to make a cobbler, " Rosaleen told June, "but August said it was gonna be Cokes and peanuts."  She said "Cokes and peanuts" the way you might say "snot and boogers." (page 217)

I think Kidd gave Lily and her mother their names for a reason.  In chapter 11, there is a reference (on page 234) to a drawing of the Annunciation in the (fictional) "Mary Through the Ages" book in August's bedroom, where the Angel Gabriel gives Mary a lily.  "Melissa" means "honey bee" in Greek, while "Deborah" means "bee" in Hebrew.  Although these latter two meanings are never referred to in the book, I can't help but think Kidd was intentional in her naming.

There's also a lot of symbolism in the bees and beehives (discussed a lot on page 206).  I didn't know, for example, that bees are a sign of resurrection and eternal life.

I 'd like to write more about how this story affected me, but I don't want to give too much of the story away.  A good summary (that hints at some of the feelings this book evokes in me) is in the introduction to the Penguin Reader's Guide for this book:

...a powerful story of coming-of-age, of the ability of love to transform our lives, and the often unacknowledged longing for the universal feminine divine. Addressing the wounds of loss, betrayal, and the scarcity of love, Kidd demonstrates the power of women coming together to heal those wounds, to mother each other and themselves, and to create a sanctuary of true family and home.

I love this book, and I can't recommend it enough.  Definitely worth a re-read every few years.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  I picked up a paperback copy of the book at a Friends of the Library book sale, because this is one of those books I want in my collection, to read again.]

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