It was foolish to think some things were beyond happening

The Secret Life of Bees
by Sue Monk Kidd

A few years back a publisher sent me a book on spec that I completely fell in love with: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. I have been meaning ever since to go back to her famously popular debut novel. As her previous writings were spiritual memoirs, she’s not an obvious candidate for my fandom, but this book also really hit the spot for me.

It’s the story of Lily, a 14-year-old white girl who lives on a peach farm in South Carolina with her perpetually angry father. She may or may not have accidentally killed her mother when she was four. Either way, there’s not a lot of affection in her life and what little there is comes from her black housekeeper Rosaleen. When Rosaleen spits tobacco on the shoes of white men who are racially abusing her, she is arrested and Lily’s father refuses to bail her out. Lily fears for Rosaleen’s life in police custody so she busts her out and they run away together.

“The scent got laid down on me in a permanent way and had all the precision of cinnamon. I used to go regularly into the Sylvan Mercantile and smell every perfume bottle they had, trying to identify it. Every time I showed up, the perfume lady acted surprised, saying, ‘My goodness, look who’s here.’ Like I hadn’t just been in there the week before and gone down the entire row of bottles. Shalimar, Chanel No. 5, White Shoulders.”

Which is how they end up living with the Boatwright sisters: August, June and May. They’re eccentric, they sell honey and they’re black. Suddenly Lily is the odd one out, the one who doesn’t quite belong, but she learns the bee-keeping trade from August, learns how to help May when she falls into a depression, and tries to keep on stand-offish June’s good side.

Despite being about race relations in the south, with some pretty serious and occasionally violent scenes, I can see the point of reviewers who label this book saccharine. But I still really liked it. The writing is good, and the sweetness felt to me like a carefully chosen way to deal with tough subjects, a little like that TV show Pushing Daisies. I must admit I ignored the epigraphs from bee-keeping manuals that open each chapter as I suspected they would be rather on the nose.

But there were plenty of details that I loved. May’s wall where she writes down her fears and pushes them between stones. Lunelle the hatmaker whose eccentric creations brighten up every meeting of the Daughters of Mary (an odd take on Catholicism that the Boatwrights have adopted and introduced friends to). Lily’s jealousy when Rosaleen and May become close friends and her confusion as she develops a crush on Zach, a black boy a few years her senior who also helps August with the bees.

“It was foolish to think some things were beyond happening, even being attracted to Negroes. I’d honestly thought such a thing couldn’t happen, the way water could not run uphill or salt could not taste sweet. A law of nature. Maybe it was a simple matter of being attracted to what I couldn’t have. Or maybe desire kicked in when it pleased without noticing the rules we lived and died by.”

This is not the shocking truth about family or race, but it does deal poignantly with both.

Published 2002 by Headline.

Source: Secondhand from our local charity shop.