It would be easy to lump The Secret Life of Bees in with other books about race relations in the U.S. South during the 1960s, such as The Help and The Dry Grass of August. That didn’t strike me as the main purpose of this book, however. While the race of the characters is important to The Secret Life of Bees–Rosaleen and Lily wouldn’t have fled if Rosaleen weren’t black–unlike the other two, I think Kidd could have removed race entirely and still had a book. Just change “black” for “Catholic”, say. It wouldn’t be quite the same, and I’m not suggesting she should have, but the tension between groups of people who distrust one another would provide a similar dynamic in either case.
What is the main point? This is the sort of chicklit novel that ends up as the showpiece of book discussion groups, so I’m sure that there are a number of people with different answers to that1. The pivotal plot point I took away from this is: girl on a voyage of self-discovery in search of a mother that never existed.
For those who aren’t into chicklit candidates for book discussion groups: The book begins with Lily chafing at life on a peach farm in South Carolina. Her mother is dead. Her father is abusive. No one cares for Lily except for (brace yourself) Rosaleen the black maid. The Civil Rights Act has just been signed into law, and Rosaleen is determined to vote for the very first time ever; she’s practiced writing her name until she’s got it letter perfect and sets off to register…but is waylaid by the three most racist men in town. She spits a mouthful of snoose juice across the shoes of the worst of the three, and is promptly arrested and shortly thereafter beaten for not apologizing and shining the men’s shoes clean of her spit. Lily slips out of her house when her father isn’t looking and springs Rosaleen from the hospital–they both know that the men will only be back to finish the job when the police can plausibly pretend not to notice.
Lily and Rosaleen head off to Tiburon, South Carolina–Lily because the only connection she has to her dead mother is a black Madonna placard advertising honey from Tiburon, and Rosaleen because she needs a place to go until things cool off a bit at home. They find a family and meaning in life, and the truth about Lily’s mother’s motives for coming home that ill fated day.
Not a bad book, though I’d call it beach reading more than Deep Meaningful Cultural Literature…not that there’s anything wrong with beach reading!
1Goodreads is up to something like 17,000 reviews.