Some time ago I read and enjoyed Sue Monk Kidd’s fictionalised account of the life of C19th (US) abolitionist and feminist, Sarah Grimke (1792-1873), The Invention of Wings (2014), so I was happy to come across in my local library the audio book of her earlier novel, The Secret Life of Bees (2002).
Monk Kidd (1947- ), a nurse and mother who has spent all her life in the South, began writing in her thirties and had published some works of christian feminism. This is her first novel. It seems to me, on the basis of the two books I have read, that she has a project to do with race relations in southern USA which might perhaps be expressed as demonstrating that white women (I think she may have given up on men) can behave ethically in a climate of anti-Black prejudice and discrimination.
While The Invention of Wings is clearly historical fiction, The Secret Life of Bees, although set half a century ago and at least referring to President Johnson, the space race and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is rather a fairy story or fable. I say fable because I think the story describes a series of events, having a moral purpose, which I don’t think could really have happened.
Other reviews describe this as coming of age or Young Adult fiction, and while I can see how this might apply it did not occur to me while I was listening. Over one glorious summer, the main protagonist, Lily, 14 yo daughter of a poor, white farmer engages in a series of adventures which end with her living on a 28 acre farm owned by three middle aged African-American sisters and becoming involved in the bee-keeping business of the oldest sister, August Boatwright.
The two underlying themes of the novel are the death of Lily’s mother 10 years previously, by gunshot in the presence of Lily and her father, and the attempts by Lily’s nanny, Rosaleen, to register to vote following the passing of the Civil Rights Act. Lily and Rosaleen go in to town, Rosaleen gets in a dispute with white men, is jailed, beaten and hospitalised. Lily runs away from her abusive father, frees Rosaleen, and by a series of improbable accidents they end up a couple of counties away at the Boatwrights’ whose honey jar logo had been kept by Lily’s mother in a box of mementos. August gives accommodation and employment to the two runaways in the face of opposition from her sister June.
There are no repercussions for Lily freeing Rosaleen, nor any great opposition from authority for Lily choosing to live with the Boatwrights – in Australia she would have been deemed to be ‘in moral danger’ and shipped off asap to juvie. The Boatwright sisters are clearly middle class in their education and style of living, as unlikely as that might have been at that time in rural South Carolina, Austen’s Elizabeth, Jane and Mary Bennet transported to the New World and less lucky in marriage.
The younger Boatwright sister dies, we engage in some odd religious worship involving a statue of the Black Madonna, Lily has a romantic involvement with the Boatwright’s godson, the story of Lily’s mother’s early life and unlucky death is revealed, Rosaleen is enrolled as a voter, and, yes, they all live happily ever after.
Did I enjoy it? Yes, I did, not least because the voice of the book’s narrator reminded me of my favourite movie, Badlands (Terrence Malik, 1973) with its haunting voice-over by the young Sissy Spacek.
The Secret Life of Bees was made into the 2008 movie of the same name, which I haven’t seen.
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, Penguin Audio, 2002. Narrated by Jenna Lamia, playing time approx. 10 hrs