To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the books I'd take with me if I was stranded on a desert island. So, when I compare a book to Harper Lee, you know I'm serious. I don't do it often. To me, it'd be like taking a literary goddess's name in vain.
The Secret Life of Bees was recommended to me by a very dear friend from Austin after I'd read The Help and found Stockett's work good but somehow lacking.
Yeah, I guess I am asking someone to "paint a starry night again." (Joni Mitchell) That really can't be done, but I'll settle for some excellent Southern fiction with racial undertones that offers more than just an anemic description of the turbulent Sixties.
And yes, I got just what I wanted and then some. The basic story, Lily Owens is fourteen years old living with her father, T. Ray. Her mother was killed when she was four in a domestic accident with a gun--Lily is not sure whether it was her fault or not, but she blames herself. Since then, T. Ray has recruited Rosaleen, one of the peach pickers who worked for him, to act as surrogate mother for her. Rosaleen's a heavy-set Black woman who doesn't spare her tongue on anyone, but Lily knows that Rosaleen loves her.
When Rosaleen gets in trouble with some White men when she and Lily are walking into town for Rosaleen to go register to vote after passage of the new Civil Rights Act, Lily realizes her caregiver might just end up being killed. She undertakes to break Rosaleen out of the hospital, where she's been confined after a "fall" which caused her to have a concussion.
Armed with nothing but a vague memory of her Mom, the name of a town "Tiburon", and a picture of a Black Madonna, Lily and Rosaleen take off to find someplace safe. Considering this is a young White girl and an older Black woman traveling alone in Jim Crow South, this is a daring undertaking. Luckily, they find a Black farmer who's willing to take them three miles from Tiburon.
There, Lily finds a jar of honey with the Black Madonna on the label. She and Rosaleen go to the Davenport house and meet the "Calendar Sisters", August, June, and May. These three women are beekeepers who bottle and sell honey with the Black Madonna label. There, they discover a unique type of matriarchal spirituality which centers upon a Black Madonna statue and an admixture of Catholicism. Lily also may well discover the truth about her mother.
The Secret Life of Bees is a powerful tale of love beyond family and race. I wish I could someday write half as beautifully or authentically as Ms. Kidd does. She's got a skill at capturing the intricacies of difficult and painful relationships that few authors ever approach. At one point, she has Lily writing an angry letter to her abusive father, T. Ray, which is ironically signed "Love Lily." This says it all and so much more.
And yes, Kidd tells more of the tumultuous Civil Rights era than The Help did. I'm not sure whether the relationship between Lily and Rosaleen is more authentic or not, I'd like to hope so. The Secret Life of Bees is well worth reading and passing along to a good book loving friend.