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Books

The Secret Life of Bees
by Sue Monk Kidd, 302 pp
Penguin Books paperback

This delightful book has been around for a couple of years, but if you haven’t read it yet, you’re in for a treat. More than just the picaresque tale of the adventures of a white Southern girl and her black housekeeper, this little story offers profound truths about what constitutes family, and the need of every human being to experience the kind of love and acceptance that a mother (not necessarily related by blood) can give.

The story takes place in the South in the ‘60’s, when the Civil Rights Movement has finally begun to make some headway. The young narrator, Lily Owens, has just become a teenager. She is white, the child of an abusive father and a mother who was killed in horrific circumstances when Lily was four years old.

Rosaleen, the black woman who has served as her surrogate mother, runs afoul of some vicious segregationists when she tries to register to vote. Thrown in jail and badly beaten, Rosaleen winds up in the hospital. Lily, realizing that Rosaleen will be put back in jail when she recovers, manages to sneak her out of the hospital. With not much hope of escape and no real plan in place, they set out on foot on a journey to Tiburon, South Carolina. Tiburon is a place with no known connection to either Lily or Rosaleen , except that Lily once found a small picture, painted on wood, in a box of her mother’s things. It showed a black Madonna, and had “Tiburon, S.C.” written in pencil on the back.

Once in Tiburon, Lily discovers that there is a local beekeeper who produces “Black Madonna Honey,” and she ascertains that the woman lives in a house the color of pink Pepto Bismal. Despite Rosaleen’s protests, Lily finds the house and rings the doorbell. Thus we meet the three extraordinary black sisters named May, June, and August Boatwright. (There was an April, but she died). The women take the fugitives in, and Lily soon learns to love her new home.

This novel is full of wonderful, fully-realized characters, especially the remarkable black women at its center. Suffice it to say that Lily begins to heal from her abysmal childhood, and finds herself in the midst of a plethora of strong and loving mothers.

The Baltimore Sun has described Sue Monk Kidd as “…a direct literary descendant of Carson McCullers.” It seems to this reviewer that a more accurate description would link her to Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, but either way, there’s no doubt that Kidd is a fine young writer, from whom we can expect much.

JS

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