An Unforgettable Coming-of-Age Story of Freedom, Hope, and the Power of Love, Sue Monk Kidd’s remarkable novel is set in the American south in 1964, at the time of the civil rights movement.
An expertly crafted book of historical fiction, The Secret Life of Bees tells of young Lily’s coming-of-age within a very troubled time of fundamental change in American society, and her quest to unravel the mystery surrounding her mother’s violent death.
Strong, memorable characters at the heart of Lily’s adventure are finely drawn with a quirky sense of humor — you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll root for Lily in her search for self and safety, and you’ll dream of being adopted by the wise-woman beekeeper August Boatwright — set against a North Carolina backdrop as richly colorful as sunlight through a jar of golden honey.
“Looking back on it now, I want to say the bees … showed up like the angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary, setting events in motion I could never have guessed.”
The Secret Life of Bees: The Book
Modern American Historical Fiction by Sue Monk Kidd
Hard to realize that this well-loved novel, inspiration for the movie, has been out for more than a decade now. If you have a friend who hasn’t yet discovered this story – perhaps a daughter who wasn’t quite old enough back when you first read it? – this special anniversary boxed edition of the book would make a lovely gift.
The arrival of the bees in her bedroom at night is the beginning of the story of Lily Melissa Owens, a fourteen-year-old girl with what my grandmother would have called spunk, an unforgettable character “rich in humor despite heart wrenching circumstances.”
Living on a peach farm in South Carolina with her harsh and abusive father, Lily’s whole life has been colored by one tragic incident, the violent death of her beloved mother. She was only four years old at the time, and of course it was an accident, as people are always reassuring her — but Lily carries a load of guilt and constantly replays the blurry half-memory of picking up the gun, hearing the shot. Her only real companion and mother-figure is Rosaleen, “a tender, but fierce-hearted black woman” who does the housework and takes care of Lily.
In 1964, South Carolina is a troubled place, with “seething racial divides” that is bound to burst out in violence. And when that violence explodes, Rosaleen is beaten and arrested. It’s the trigger for Lily’s emancipation – she is desperate not only to save Rosaleen from jail, but to save herself as well. Calling upon Lily’s quick wits and courage, the two escape and flee into the unknown – a reckless journey that soon turns into Lily’s quest to uncover the long-buried truth about her mother’s tragic death.
By a mix of accident and good luck, with perhaps just a touch of divine interventions, Lily and Rosaleen are taken in three eccentric beekeeping sisters who revere the Black Madonna with a very female brand of individual spirituality that reaches back to the era of slavery.
It’s as deep and powerful as anything a lost girl in search of love and mother-love could ever hope to encounter, and as Lily’s life becomes deeply entwined with that of the “wise woman” August and her sisters, their eccentric circle of friends, and the honey bees — all of this at a pivotal point in modern American history — she is irrevocably altered.
As the book’s blurb puts it, “In a mesmerizing world of bees and honey, amid the strength and power of wise women, Lily journeys through painful secrets and shattering betrayals, finding her way to the single thing her heart longs for most.”
“And when you get down to it, Lily, that’s the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love – but to persist in love.”
The Research Behind the Novel
The Author Visited an Apiary, Read Books on Beekeeping
Sue Monk Kidd‘s novel, The Secret Life of Bees, was sparked in part by her childhood memory of living in a house with bees in its walls, and how the bees came out at night to fly around the room when her future husband came visiting the first time, to meet her family. “Other than that,” she said, “I didn’t know much” about bees.
To research the background for her story, Kidd visited an apiary in South Carolina and experienced first-hand the unique “rush of fear and relish” that comes with lifting the lid on an active hive to stand in a “whirling cloud of bees,” as she puts it in the Penguin Reader’s Guide to The Secret Life of Bees.
She also read a number of books on honeybees and beekeeping, quotations from which are at the head of each chapter of the novel. A few are now out of print, but here is one of the more intriguing books she studied as background for her writing.
The Black Madonna – Our Lady in Chains
A Silent Character in The Secret Life of Bees
In The Secret Life of Bees, August Boatwright’s honey, beeswax, and other products of the hive all carry the Black Madonna label — with the same mysterious picture of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary, found in her dead mother’s possessions, that led runaway Lily to the beekeeper’s home in the first place.
Inside the bright pink house of the three beekeeping sisters, the Daughters of Mary gather on Sundays to pray to an ancient figurehead from an old sailing ship, the wooden figure they call The Black Madonna of Breznichar of Bohemia, or Our Lady in Chains. There is even a legend about the Lady’s origins, which August relates, and it’s all powerfully symbolic of the civil rights movement and of a sisterhood among women that, it turns out, can be strong enough to break down race barriers – even in 1964, South Carolina.
There’s a long history of the Black Madonna figure in Christianity across many countries and cultures — and one of the most famous is the Black Madonna of Czestochowa (Czestochowa, Poland, being part of the historical Bohemia) to which there’s a shrine in the Missouri, in the southern USA.
The Black Madonna of Breznichar of Bohemia, however, exists only between the pages of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, and in the imagination of her readers.
“You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we have to find this part of ourselves inside.”
The Secret Life of Bees: The Film
Starring Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, and Jennifer Hudson
I loved the book, so I hesitated to see the movie – until I read somewhere that the author herself had been blown away by the intelligence and sensitivity of the script, and by its faithfulness to the book.
A Glorious Motion Picture Experience
“You know, Lily, people can start out one way, and by the time life gets through with them they end up completely different.”
The Cast of the Movie
- Dakota Fanning as Lily Owens
- Queen Latifah as August Boatwright
- Jennifer Hudson as Rosaleen Daise
- Alicia Keys as June Boatwright
- Sophie Okonedo as May Boatwright
- Paul Bettany as T.Ray Owens
- Hilarie Burton as Deborah Owens
- Tristan Wilds as Zach Taylor
- Nate Parker as Neil
- Shondrella Avery as Greta
- Renee Clark as Doll
- Sharon Morris as Violet
- Nicky Buggs as Cressie
- Jasmine Burke as Sugar Girl
- Emma Sage Bowman, Emily Alyn Lind, and Addy Miller as the young Lily
Did You Know?
I can’t resist the bits and pieces of trivia that float to the surface in any discussion of how a creative work came to be. In the case of The Secret Life of Bees, the movie production, here are a few cool facts that interested me to learn:
- Jennifer Hudson acted as her own stunt double in the big fight scene when her character, Rosaleen, is accosted on her way to register for the voter’s list.
- Alicia Keyes took lessons in playing the cello, in order to more convincingly portray the character of June Boatwright.
- Jennifer Hudson had to do research on the civil rights movement, in preparation for her role in the film adaptation of The Secret Life of Bees.
- Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, and Tristan Wilds went to “bee school” to learn the basics of beekeeping, in preparation for their roles in the film.
Have you read The Secret Life of Bees yet, or seen the movie?