I’m late to the fan base for A Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. I’ve had this book on my “to be read” list for many years, along with others that I will get to soon! Recently, my high school senior shared that this is her favorite book, so much so that her copy is falling apart and her current read count is up to five. I was a bit shocked at this discovery and decided that now was the time to remedy the fact that it still sat on that TBR list.
I can only say that I was sorely disappointed in myself for having ignored this book so long. It was a book that guts you, rips emotion from you and then fills you back up with hope and knowledge. I found that I both gasped in shock, laughed and cried. Can we be honest here? I declare this a safe space. I sobbed, not just cried. It wasn’t just during one or two parts of the book, but I found that it was throughout the beginning, middle and end.
The story that Kidd tells in A Secret Life of Bees is both ephemeral and dense. It is no wonder that my daughter has read it multiple times. There are few books that I would put on a re-read list because I tend to read, digest and move on. However, I’m already feeling the need to re-read this tale. Meaning I will buy my own copy and it will quickly be highlighted and annotated.
“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” –A Secret Life of Bees
We’ll begin with the setting of this tale. It is the summer of 1964, which means we enter a tale naturally filled with palpable conflict. Not only has the Civil Rights Act just been signed by LBJ, but it is South Carolina. The tension quivers throughout the narrative, rearing its head at crucial moments. It is never gone though. Kidd uses this time and location as a foundation for her story and then layers further conflict through the personal stories of each character.
The cast of characters is also an interesting aspect of this story. While the tale evolves through the eyes of Lily Owens, a young white girl whose past is broken to put it simply, you’re never sure how much time has passed between the story she’s telling and when she’s telling it. Does the image of Rosaleen, her black caretaker, evolve as Lily’s living it or looking back on the events at a later date? It’s hard to tell. It made me question how I process life events and the people in my life.
Other characters in the book are revealed and then re-revealed as secrets tumble from them through a summer that is tense to say the least. Lily, her mother, T-Ray, Rosaleen, the Boatwright Sisters, the Black Madonna herself, the heat of the South, racism; they are all characters in this novel. They cannot exist without each other and they shape the others around them.
The aspect of this book that had the deepest impact on me, during my first read, was the role of the female and the interaction between females. The importance of the mother, sister, daughter relationships shine brightly here, even when they aren’t exactly what we would call traditional mother/daughter or sisters. Kidd offers up an array of female relationships, some horribly broken and painful, while others are beautiful in their own way. None of them are ever perfect, but then life is never perfect.
“Nobody around here had ever seen a lady beekeeper till her. She liked to tell everybody that women made the best beekeepers, ’cause they have a special ability built into them to love creatures that sting. It comes from years of loving children and husbands.” –A Secret Life of Bees
In the end, I felt empowered as a female, as a mother, a daughter and a sister. There was a cathartic release of always reaching for perfection in those relationships. They are chaotic. They are up and down. They are each beautiful messes.
There are so many other aspects to this book; views of life and death, the power of love in the face of imperfection, the beauty of our natural world, the pain of growing into ourselves. I could go on, but for now I will revel in the beauty of the female. I’m sure my future reads will uncover even more for me in a book full of secrets.