The year is 1964, and President Johnson has just signed the Civil Rights Act, guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote. In rural South Carolina, a white fourteen-year-old named Lily Owens and her black housekeeper Rosaleen embark together on an unlikely journey. Lily, haunted by a burden of guilt over her mother’s death ten years prior, flees her cruel father T. Ray. Rosaleen, after offending three of the town’s biggest racists on her way to register to vote, flees arrest.
A clue to Lily’s mother’s past leads the fellow travelers to the town of Tiburon, where they are taken in by three black sisters named May, June, and August, who keep bees. As Lily learns the art of beekeeping, she experiences romantic love for the first time, discovers her hidden talents, and struggles to confront her painful family past.
This book is enjoyable for its elegant and poetic language. Many sentences are quotable for their simple beauty and wisdom. Lily is a likeable protagonist with her matter-of-fact narration, and readers feel sympathy for her pain, as well as concern and suspense over her and Rosaleen’s eventual fate. One of the most convincing aspects of Lily’s characterization is how she confronts her own prejudices with humility as daily life with her new black family continually challenges her assumptions.
One of the most powerful themes of the book is Lily’s spiritual journey, which is facilitated by May, June, and August’s religious congregation called the Daughters of Mary, whose icon is a black Madonna. The book avoids otherworldly religion and pat dogmatic answers; instead, through her experience with the Daughters of Mary, Lily gradually acquires a real and profound knowledge of the Divine Mother.
The Secret Life of Bees explores the true meaning of family and richly develops the themes of loss, grief, forgiveness, love, and acceptance. It leaves the reader feeling just a little wiser and more hopeful.