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19.01.2014
There is a heat that pervades the pages, making it feel as if the South Carolinian sun has snuck in through your back door. And it is these feisty, loving women, the Boatwright sisters -- May, June and August -- who truly make the book shine.
You can almost feel the sisters' collective love as it wraps itself around young Lily, providing the elixir her broken heart so desperately needs.
Ultimately, it is the sweetness -- of the honey, of the sisters, of the sheer, breathtaking humanity in these pages -- that will make you fall in love, whether reading the book for the very first time or upon revisiting it. One of the few mementoes Lily has of her mother is a small picture of a black Madonna with the words, Tiburon, S.
August Boatwright, Mother Figure, (with capital letters!), earth mother, and Madonna all-in-one, takes Lily and Rosaleen in without question, gives them jobs and a home – at least temporarily, until they can live and grow in an environment which will allow them to thrive.
All kinds of neat tidbits and facts about bees, their lives, habits, care, beekeeping in general, and honey production are woven throughout the book, and the details are fascinating. Sue Monk Kidd writes beautifully, lyrically, about a southern white girl’s unusual coming of age. So let me stop here and say, that while I enjoyed reading this book, with its rich narrative and characters, it does read like a fairy tale. My copy has so many favorite pages thumbed down that it has blossomed to twice its original size. You might be tempted to fan yourself as you read, or pour yourself a glass of sweet tea or lemonade.
With nary a question, the three black women take in Lily -- who has run away from her abusive father -- and her nanny, Rosaleen (whom Lily, incidentally and quite wonderfully, has broken out of jail).
As if honey runs through their very veins, the Boatwright ladies teach Lily the intricacies of bee farming, all the while coaching her on the secrets of soul-soothing. I daresay it might even offer solace during a moment in our nation when we need some reminding of the human ties that bind us. It fills her with anguish to think that she, at age four, had a hand in the accidental shooting death of Deborah Fontanel Owens, her own mother.


One of her teachers has encouraged her to think about a college education, although her father tells her she will be lucky to go to beauty school. The hideous racism and violence of life in the US, north and south, is not depicted realistically in comparison to the beautiful, pastoral setting and peace of life with the Boatwright women. There used to be many white children, in the south, (and in the north), during the 1960’s and before, who received a primary source of love and care from black women, hired to work for their families. Set during a steamy summer in South Carolina at the height of the civil rights movement, the novel grabs you from the beginning and won't let go -- largely because of its narrator, fourteen-year-old Lily Owens, motherless and wise beyond her years. August is probably my favorite of the trio; she keeps everything humming along at the farm with her own special brand of industry and understanding. In fact, the restorative power of honey is so varied and abundant in this novel you may well want to buy a whole case of it when you're done reading. On July 4, 1964, Lily’s birthday, she walks Rosaleen to town so the black woman can register to vote. However, as important and interesting as bees are as themes in The Secret Life Of Bees, sometimes the narrative is too sweet and sugary for my taste.
I do hope readers realize that much poetic licence has been taken here in terms of what this difficult period was like in US history. In Kidd's gifted hands, Lily manages to be both sassy and sweet, part civil rights advocate and part poet. In fact, Lily has very little memory of that dark day’s events, and is totally dependent on her miserable, sadistic father, T. Lily has saved some money from selling peaches at her father’s roadside stand, and is certain that if she and Rosaleen can reach Tiburon, she will find out about her Momma, and they will somehow be safe. I clearly remember what the times were like when President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and when Schwerner, Cheney & Goodman were murdered in Mississippi, and when Ms.
Where else can you find a girl who imagines Mother Nature looking a lot "like Eleanor Roosevelt" and who sees dragonflies "stitching up the air"?
The rhythms of the South, the melodic buzzing of bees, the sweet taste of honey from the honey farm Lily visits -- all these things come together to form a character unto itself, as rich as any of the feisty women who inhabit the novel.


Johnson just signed into effect the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Rosaleen feels pride in doing her civic duty, as does Lily in accompanying her. I was at the Democratic Convention in 1964 in Atlantic City, as a student delegate, when Ms. Lily finds a connection between her Madonna picture and a trio of fairy godmother-like women – the calendar sisters May, June, and August Boatwright. In reality, back then in the American South, given what Rosaleen did to defend herself, and to whom she did it, she very well could have been beaten to death on the spot. These black spinster sisters live in a Pepto-Bismol pink-colored house, on a large tract of land outside of town. They keep bees, sell honey and other bee by-products, and their label, the Black Madonna Honey Company, is the same as the picture keepsake that Lily has from her mother. One character is badly beaten, but not killed – she is actually able to walk out of the hospital within 24 hours. She manages to escape, though, and to break Rosaleen out of the hospital where she is recovering from her afternoon’s encounter with Jim Crowe. A strange white girl just moves in with a family of black women, in rural SC, and no one makes a helluva hullabaloo? And I shudder to think of a white teenage girl driving around in a car, in the front seat, with a black teenage male – in 1964 South Carolina. This would not be believable in many northern cities at the time – but it was unthinkable in the south.



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