Self and community in The Secret Life of Bees
Based on various lists I’ve seen on the web, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd has been one of the top 10 choices of book clubs for the last several years. Though I don’t rank it among my favorites, I can see why a lot of groups have chosen to talk about it. Two discussion points stand out to me: the apiary imagery and the theme of identity.
The book is saturated with honey bee imagery. Lily (note the flower name), a white teenager, flees her abusive home on broken wings, instinctively following the trail of her dead mother–a single Black Madonna honey label she finds among her mother’s things–back to a small South Carolina town. There she discovers the pink house, a hive of hardworking, nurturing women beekeepers. The queen bee is August Boatwright, eldest of three black sisters who offer Lily room and board working in their honey house. From August, Lily learns how to move among the bees without getting stung, how to respectfully extract the honey, and how to protect the hives from environmental extremes.
(Kidd’s sensory descriptions bring back a lot of childhood memories for me. We kept several beehives at our apple orchard to improve pollination. I remember wearing the canvas coveralls with the billowy veils of netting, carrying the smoke chimney to calm the bees, spinning honey out of the supers via centrifugal force in a hand-cranked extractor, roasting pans full of gold-oozing honeycomb on the kitchen counter, and the intense sticky sweetness you just can’t wash off your fingers.)
The lessons Lily learns from the bees and their keepers that summer of 1964 are lessons of identity. She is both an individual and a member of a community. Like the bees, she needs both structure and freedom. She discovers how much she has in common with these women of a different generation and ethnicity, and how much she has in common with her own mother who she barely remembers and by whom she feels abandoned.
The religious context of the story is fascinating, but ultimately misdirected. The Boatright sisters are priestesses of a syncretistic religion of Roman Mariology and primitive goddess worship. They urge Lily to respect herself and to treat others with the same respect she deserves, recognizing the “divine spark” within her; unfortunately, they define this as a universal divine motherhood rather than the biblical doctrine of imago dei, the dignity and purpose God bestows upon every human being by forming him or her in his divine image.
Still, the characters are authentic and memorable, the prose vivid, and the conclusion satisfying. In searching for her mother, Lily finds a whole community of mothers. She goes from being a girl who traps bees in a jar in her bedroom to an apprentice beekeeper who lives in harmony with the hive. Liberated from her abusive father, Lily is surrounded by people who encourage her to seek out and train her gifts, and thus the story is an affirming one.