Saving the bees seems like a trendy thing to do these days, but does anyone actually spend time to consider their worth? For one girl, bees are a sign of hope and freedom.
Lily Owens, the young protagonist in Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees,” sees bees in her bedroom and is comforted by their presence. She lives with her abusive and neglectful father T. Ray on a peach farm in 1964 South Carolina. There, she tries to make her adolescence as pleasant as she can for herself, dreaming about one day attending college or becoming a writer.
Enjoying herself is no easy task because 14-year-old Lily believes herself responsible for the shooting and subsequent death of her mother, Deborah, ten years prior. T. Ray holds this over her head, never comforting her but instead blaming her. Lily spends her time wondering why she would have killed her mother and what her life would have been like had her mother still been around.
One day, Lily and her African-American housekeeper, Rosaleen, walk into town so the latter can register to vote. Along the way, they are harassed by three white men, and Rosaleen dumps the contents of her snuff jar on their shoes. Infuriated, the men beat her in front of Lily, and eventually the cops come to pick the two up.
T. Ray comes to pick Lily up from the jail, but Rosaleen must stay. When T. Ray tells Lily that Rosaleen will likely be killed by the men she stood up to, she decides she must free her housekeeper so the two can run away.
When she makes her way back to the jail, Lily discovers Rosaleen has been moved to the hospital. From there, she breaks her out, the two running away to Tiburon, South Carolina. This is a place Lily hopes she will find peace and answers, as her mother had a picture of an African-American Jesus with the town’s name written on the back.
The picture leads the pair to a bee farm belonging to August, May and June Boatright, three African-American sisters. They allow Lily and Rosaleen to stay, eventually teaching them the trade. During their stay, Lily tries to get answers about her mother and, in the process, learns about bees, love, grief and racism. She makes friends and witnesses their pain and suffering, along with great joy and faith.
The book was beautifully written and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but on further inspection, it is problematic for a couple different reasons.
Although I don’t believe it to be the author’s intention, some of the African-American characters are stereotyped, forced to be symbols to fit the designated path of the protagonist. Because of this, their character growth is stifled — they aren’t allowed to blossom beyond the boundaries of the roles they’re meant to fill in Lily’s life.
Lily’s outlook is troublesome, as well. She learns a lot about racism throughout the book, don’t get me wrong. However, she never realized racism was a problem because she had adopted an idea of “colorblindness,” not recognizing the differences in experiences between African-American and White people.
“The Secret Life of Bees” has a 4.02 rating on Goodreads and a 4.6 on Amazon, but I’m torn; I liked the book and the main idea behind it, but I struggled with the underlying racism that was present in the writing of the book. After all is said and done, my rating is a 3.6 because of the book’s problematic nature.
I challenge those who choose to read this novel to do so carefully. It’s OK to like the story — I did — but make sure to be critical of racist ideas and stereotypes perpetuated within and realize it’s not without its flaws. We live in a society where there is no more room for discrimination against people of color, no matter how subtly an author presents it.