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Teacher Resources: Summary/Review of The Secret Life of Bees
The Secret Life of Bees
Peacock Club Featured BOOK REVIEW Reviewed by Nomi Krasilovsky, Reference Librarian, Providence Public Library.

With her highly original first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd transports her reader back to the civil rights era South. It is the summer of 1964 in South Carolina and fourteen-year-old Lily Owens’s life is about to change irrevocably. Growing up in the shadow of her mother’s death and her father’s tyranny, her only source of friendship comes from Rosaleen, the African-American woman who takes care of her.

On the afternoon of the fourth of July, Rosaleen, accompanied by Lily, decides to venture in to town to register for the vote. Unfortunately, a trip that should have resulted in pride and empowerment for Rosaleen is thwarted when a barrage of racist epithets is hurled at them from three harassing townsmen. Rosaleen, not about to receive insults from anybody, promptly retaliates by pouring snuff juice all over their shoes. Although the three men proceed to aggressively attack Rosaleen, it is she who unjustly winds up in jail.

Lily, plagued by the unspeakable way in which her mother died, is tormented both by her intractable father’s unwillingness to open up to her about her mother, and by his abusive behavior. Unable to reconstruct a clear memory of her early childhood with her mother, Lily becomes fixated upon a picture found among her mother’s things of a Black Madonna with the location Tiburon, South Carolina scrawled on the back of it.

She then has an epiphany-like moment and realizes that she must free Rosaleen from jail, escape from her father, and travel to Tiburon. The adventures of Rosaleen and Lily, guided by the enigmatic Black Madonna, lead them to the bee keeping home of three unusual but wise and compassionate middle-aged African-American sisters. Lily, the only white member of both her new household and the bee keeping sisters’ circle of friends, begins to understand the complexities of racial difference and racial consciousness, while coming to terms with her own internalized racism. It is here in this maternal household of strong and spiritual women that Lily learns the truth about her mother’s life, has her first brushes with romance, and encounters some basic truths about love and friendship.

While this novel provides us with a very accurate and troubling portrayal of southern race relations, through the employment of humor and the honest voice of Lily, this novel also speaks to us about the limitless possibilities of love and friendship. Sue Monk Kidd writes this coming-of-age novel with a descriptive eye attuned to the lush beauty of the South and a unique sense of the spiritual quality of human relationships and their ability to radically change the course of a young girl’s life.

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