Set against a background of America’s south in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees is a wonderful piece of feminist literature. The strongest characters in the book are women, and it is the women who remain with us long after we have turned the last page.
The main character is Lily, a fourteen-year-old white girl; her mother is dead and her father is abusive and cruel. When the housekeeper Rosaleen, a black woman, attempts to register for the vote, she is accosted, thrown into gaol and beaten up. Lily manages to sneak her out of the hospital, terrified that if she is to be left there the men who beat her up will come back and kill her. The two women then hitchhike to a town, the name of which Lily has seen on the back of a card belonging to her mother. Eventually they reach the home of a bee keeper.
Bees are an important part of the story, which is basically about finding oneself and being able to accept that which one finds. There are many references to the healing qualities of honey and how understanding and ‘letting go’ leads to personal freedom.
The queen bee, the Black Madonna, the Negro women and, of course, Lily herself all combine to create a force that shows that although they might be living in a man’s world, it is in fact women who have the last word.
Photo of Sue Monk Kidd from Scholastic