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One Book, One State, Literally by Julia Steiny The Secret Life of Bees

Last summer while on vacation with my parents and siblings’ families, I took a stack of novels that were contenders for the Reading Across Rhode Island project. These citywide and now statewide reading projects have caught on across America, led in most cases by literacy’s best friends, librarians. This year Iowa is reading Peace Like a River by Leif Eyer; Wisconsin is reading Founding Brothers: The Revolution Generations by Joseph Ellis; Seattle, the place where this fashion first got started, has chosen and author, Isabe Allende, rather than a specific book.

Whether you love or hate the book, it’s so cool to have a literary work you can all talk about. Chicago’s To Kill a Mockingbird project produced little mockingbird pins designed to be conversation-starters among random folks in dentists’ offices, waiting for buses or getting groceries. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have something in common a tad loftier than the experience of professional attention-grabbers at half-time? Novels give us the chance to experience cultures, contexts, people and human circumstances that we can have and share only through reading.

But how do you choose a book? You’re sure to offend someone. Or bore them. What mere book might draw together those in a city, or in our case in a whole state, of staunch individualists who resist participating in anything that doesn’t feel uniquely tailored to them?

Granted, I am one of those.

In truth, most of the books in my summer stack were too bland for my taste, hitting just one too many politically-correct notes with uninspired prose. Last year’s choice had been a great first launch into such a project, with many strong virtues including a handsome, cooperative author. But neither delicious prose nor edge was among those virtues.

One book, however, did compel me. I had been happily nestled in a big easy chair when my youngest sister confronted me – she runs a construction company and starts most conversations as though a guy were going to give her a lot of lip – ‘What’s up with that book? You’ve been lost in it.’

‘This,’ I said in a tone made vulnerable by an especially poignant scene towards the end, ‘...is a really good book.’ She all but snatched it the moment I’d closed the back cover, read it, and then foisted it on my mother, who read it in two sittings. My other sister, to whom I gave the book at Christmas, marveled about what a spectacular success it was with her friends as well – not to mention all the awards it garnered – and asked what I thought made it so compelling.

It was Rhode Island’s pick this year, The Secret Life of Bees written by Sue Monk Kidd, who has written books about spirituality, but this is her first novel.

The story takes place in 1964, at the dawn of the civil rights movement, and is told with the impatient, blunt voice of Lily Owens, who should be in the eighth grade but has run away from just about everything. She has a hazy, but hideous memory of her mother’s murder when she was four, which left her with an ornery cuss of a father. When her Black surrogate mother and friend Rosaleen gets in trouble with the authorities over registering to vote, Lily grabs her and goes on the lam in a crazy search for information about her dead mother with precious few clues.

What she finds, in the tradition of terrific writing, is not at all what she thought she’d find. She learns, as will you to an intriguing extent, how to keep bees, how to make friends, even how to participate wholeheartedly in wiggy spiritual rituals whose unconventionality do not detract from their ability to bind together a makeshift extended family.

Lily says towards the beginning: ‘The bees came the summer of 1964, the summer I turned fourteen and my life went spinning off into a whole new orbit, and I mean whole new orbit. Looking back on it now, I want to say the bees were sent to me. I want to say they showed up like the angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary, setting events in motion I could never have guessed. I know it is presumptuous to compare my small life to hers, but I have reason to believe she wouldn’t mind; I will get to that. Right now it’s enough to say that despite everything that happened that summer, I remain tender towards the bees.’

It was not the racial issues that caught me, nor the charming middle school romance, not even the tremendous character of August, a folk sage with healing powers. For me it was Lily’s aching drive to attach somewhere, starting with cleaning up the business with her mom. That same frustrated drive produced rage in Antwone Fisher, about whom I wrote last week, and who also had to make peace with his mother in order to move on. It’s our hard-wired drive to attach to other people that can go so seriously awry that shrinks diagnose anti-social ‘attachment disorders,’ and woe to those who have to live with them. It’s the primitive need to find your way back home to an unconditional love that make all audiences – no matter how bad the production – weep at the end of Shakespeare’s Winters Tale when Perdita is reunited with her mother. So the center of the Bees story is primal, but the action, context and characters are quirky.

In any case, that’s my quick take. What’s yours?

Share your thoughts with others at the project’s site: http://readingacrossri.org/ . Get a Reading Across Rhode Island button with this year’s bee sticker to show you’ve read the book and start that random conversation with a literary stranger. The site will put you in touch with the activities and events going on around the book. Sue Monk Kidd will be here for a May Breakfast on May 8th at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet; get tickets. She’ll also be a guest on the radio show Reading With Robin on April 10th.

I really enjoyed this book. If you don’t like it, submit your own suggestions for next year. But do jump in and read with the state.

Because good fiction is truly mind-expanding.

Julia Steiny is a former member of the Providence School Board; she now consults and writes for a number of education, government and private enterprises. She welcomes your questions and comments on education. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or c/o EdWatch, Education and Employment, Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.