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Secret Life of Bees (Kidd)

The Secret Life of Bees 
Sue Monk Kidd, 2002
Penguin Group USA
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780142001745


Summary
Living on a peach farm in South Carolina with her harsh, unyielding father, Lily Owens has shaped her entire life around one devastating, blurred memory - the afternoon her mother was killed, when Lily was four. Since then, her only real companion has been the fierce-hearted, and sometimes just fierce, black woman Rosaleen, who acts as her "stand-in mother."

When Rosaleen insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily knows it's time to spring them both free. They take off in the only direction Lily can think of, toward a town called Tiburon, South Carolina—a name she found on the back of a picture amid the few possessions left by her mother.

There they are taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters named May, June, and August. Lily thinks of them as the calendar sisters and enters their mesmerizing secret world of bees and honey, and of the Black Madonna who presides over this household of strong, wise women. Maternal loss and betrayal, guilt and forgiveness entwine in a story that leads Lily to the single thing her heart longs for most. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—August 12, 1948
Where—Sylvester, Georgia, USA
Education—B.S., Texas Christian University
Awards—Poets and Writers Award; Katherine Anne Porter   
   Award
Currently—lives in Charleston, South Carolina


Sue Monk Kidd's first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, spent more than one hundred weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, has sold more than four million copies, and was chosen as the 2004 Book Sense Paperback Book of the Year and Good Morning America's "Read This!" Book Club pick. She is also the author of several acclaimed memoirs and the recipient of numerous awards, including a Poets & Writers award. She lives near Charleston, South Carolina.

More
Sue Monk Kidd first made her mark on the literary circuit with a pair of highly acclaimed, well-loved memoirs detailing her personal spiritual development. However, it was a work of fiction, The Secret Life of Bees, that truly solidified her place among contemporary writers. Although Kidd is no longer writing memoirs, her fiction is still playing an important role in her on-going journey of spiritual self-discovery.

Despite the fact that Kidd's first published books were nonfiction works, her infatuation with writing grew out of old-fashioned, Southern-yarn spinning. As a little girl in the little town of Sylvester, Georgia, Kidd thrilled to listen to her father tell stories about "mules who went through cafeteria lines and a petulant boy named Chewing Gum Bum," as she says on her web site. Inspired by her dad's tall tales, Kidd began keeping a journal that chronicled her everyday experiences.

Such self-scrutiny surely gave her the tools she needed to pen such keenly insightful memoirs as When the Hearts Waits and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, both tracking her development as both a Christian and a woman. "I think when you have an impulse to write memoir you are having an opportunity to create meaning of your life," she told Barnes & Noble.com, "to articulate your experience; to understand it in deeper ways... And after a while, it does free you from yourself, of having to write about yourself, which it eventually did for me."

Once Kidd had worked the need to write about herself out of her system, she decided to get back to the kind of storytelling that inspired her to become a writer in the first place. Her debut novel The Secret Life of Bees showed just how powerfully the gift of storytelling charges through Kidd's veins. The novel has sold more than 4.5 million copies, been published in over twenty languages, and spent over two years on the New York Times bestseller list.

Even as Kidd has shifted her focus from autobiography to fiction, she still uses her writing as a means of self-discovery. This is especially evident in her latest novel The Mermaid Chair, which tells the story of a woman named Jessie who lives a rather ordinary life with her husband Hugh until she meets a man about to take his final vows at a Benedictine monastery. Her budding infatuation with Brother Thomas leads Jessie to take stock of her life and resolve an increasingly intense personal tug-of-war between marital fidelity and desire.

Kidd feels that through telling Jessie's story, she is also continuing her own journey of self-discovery, which she began when writing her first books. "I think there is some part of that journey towards one's self that I did experience. I told that particular story in my book The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and it is the story of a woman's very-fierce longing for herself. The character in The Mermaid Chair Jessie has this need to come home to herself in a much deeper way," Kidd said, "to define herself, and I certainly know that longing."

Extras
Kidd lives beside a salt marsh near Charleston, South Carolina, with her husband, Sandy, a marriage and individual counselor in private practice. (From Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews 
Lily, in finding herself, finds the divine archetypal feminine, the great universal mother who resides within and empowers each of us. The book is replete with metaphors: the beehive, honey, and queen bee stand in for concepts of home, love, and the uber-feminine.
A LitLovers LitPick  (March '07)


Like Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and Kent Haruf's Plainsong, this book is about family and caretaking and blurring social lines, about eccentric kindness, swollen hearts and the artifacts of love. It is about the South in 1964, about a child named Lily whose world is irrevocably transformed when her mother dies one tragic afternoon. It is not just the mother's absence that haunts Lily as she grows up; it is the fuzzy memory of the circumstances of her mother's death that makes Lily secretly wonder if she is forgivable, lovable, good. Goodness—what it is, what it looks like, who bestows it—is the frame within which this book is masterfully hung, the organizing principle behind this intimate, unpretentious and unsentimental work....

In the company of the beekeepers and their extraordinary female friends, Lily slowly learns to live with her own past, to trust the beekeepers with her secrets and to navigate the pressing prejudices of the South. She learns what goodness is and how it finally survives. She earns the respect of the company she keeps and becomes a better version of herself.

Maybe it is true that there are no perfect books, but I closed this one believing that I had found perfection. The language is never anything short of crystalline and inspired. The plotting is subtle and careful and exquisitely executed, enabling Kidd not just to make her points about race and religion, but to tell a memorable story while she does. The characters are lovable and deep-hearted, fully dimensional, never pat. The story endures long after the book is slipped back onto the shelf.
Beth Kephart - Book Magazine


Honey-sweet but never cloying, this debut by nonfiction author Kidd (The Dance of the Dissident Daughter) features a hive's worth of appealing female characters, an offbeat plot and a lovely style. It's 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act, in Sylvan, S.C. Fourteen-year-old Lily is on the lam with motherly servant Rosaleen, fleeing both Lily's abusive father T. Ray and the police who battered Rosaleen for defending her new right to vote. Lily is also fleeing memories, particularly her jumbled recollection of how, as a frightened four-year-old, she accidentally shot and killed her mother during a fight with T. Ray. Among her mother's possessions, Lily finds a picture of a black Virgin Mary with "Tiburon, S.C." on the back so, blindly, she and Rosaleen head there. It turns out that the town is headquarters of Black Madonna Honey, produced by three middle-aged black sisters, August, June and May Boatwright. The "Calendar sisters" take in the fugitives, putting Lily to work in the honey house, where for the first time in years she's happy. But August, clearly the queen bee of the Boatwrights, keeps asking Lily searching questions. Faced with so ideally maternal a figure as August, most girls would babble uncontrollably. But Lily is a budding writer, desperate to connect yet fiercely protective of her secret interior life. Kidd's success at capturing the moody adolescent girl's voice makes her ambivalence comprehensible and charming. And it's deeply satisfying when August teaches Lily to "find the mother in (herself)" a soothing lesson that should charm female readers of all ages.
Publishers Weekly


This sweeping debut novel, excerpts of which have appeared in Best American Short Stories, tells the tale of a 14-year-old white girl named Lily Owen who is raised by the elderly African American Rosaleen after the accidental death of Lily's mother. Following a racial brawl in 1960s Tiburon, SC, Lily and Rosaleen find shelter in a distant town with three black bee-keeping sisters. The sisters and their close-knit community of women live within the confines of racial and gender bondage and yet have an unmistakable strength and serenity associated with the worship of a black Madonna and the healing power of honey. In a series of unforgettable events, Lily discovers the truth about her mother's past and the certainty that "the hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters." The stunning metaphors and realistic characters are so poignant that they will bring tears to your eyes. —David A. Berone, Univ. of New Hampshire, Durham
Library Journal


A wonderfully written debut that rather scants its subject of loss and discovery-a young girl searching for the truth about her dead mother-in favor of a feminist fable celebrating the company of women and the ties between that mothers and daughters. The prose is lapidary, the characters diverse, and the story unusual as it crosses the color line, details worship of a black Virgin Mary, and extensively describes the lives and keeping of bees. But despite these accomplishments, the fabulist elements (bees as harbingers of death, a statue with healing powers) seem more whimsical than credible and ultimately detract from the story itself. Lily Owens, just about to turn 14, narrates this tale set in South Carolina during July 1964. Since her mother died when she was four, Lily has been raised by African-American Rosaleen and by her sadistic father T. Ray Owens, a peach farmer who keeps reminding Lily that she killed her mother. When Rosaleen is arrested and beaten for trying to vote, Lily springs her from the hospital, and they head to the town of Tiburon because its name is on the back of a cross that belonged to Lily's mother. On the front is a picture of a black Madonna who can also be seen on the labels of jars of honey produced in Tiburon by local beekeeper Augusta Boatwright. Certain the secret to her mother's past lies in Tiburon, Lily persuades Augusta to take them in. As the days pass she helps with the bees; meets handsome young African-American Zach; becomes convinced her mother knew Augusta; and is introduced to the worship of Our Lady of Chains, a wooden statue of Mary that since slavery has had special powers. By summer's end, Lily knows a great deal of bee lore and also finds the right moment to learn what really happened to her mother. Despite some dark moments, more honey than vinegar.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Were you surprised to learn that T. Ray used to be different, that once he truly loved Deborah? How do you think Deborah's leaving affected him? Did it shed any light on why T. Ray was so cruel and abusive to Lily?

2. Had you ever heard of "kneeling on grits"? What qualities did Lily have that allowed her to survive, endure, and eventually thrive, despite T. Ray?

3. Who is the queen bee in this story?

4. Lily's relationship to her dead mother was complex, ranging from guilt to idealization, to hatred, to acceptance. What happens to a daughter when she discovers her mother once abandoned her? Is Lily right-would people generally rather die than forgive? Was it harder for Lily to forgive her mother or herself?

5. Lily grew up without her mother, but in the end she finds a house full of them. Have you ever had a mother figure in your life who wasn't your true mother? Have you ever had to leave home to find home?

6. What compelled Rosaleen to spit on the three men's shoes? What does it take for a person to stand up with conviction against brutalizing injustice? What did you like best about Rosaleen?

7. Had you ever heard of the Black Madonna? What do you think of the story surrounding the Black Madonna in the novel? How would the story be different if it had been a picture of a white Virgin Mary? Do you know women whose lives have been deepened or enriched by a connection to an empowering Divine Mother?

8. Why is it important that women come together? What did you think of the "Calendar Sisters" and the Daughters of Mary? How did being in the company of this circle of females transform Lily?

9. May built a wailing wall to help her come to terms with the pain she felt. Even though we don't have May's condition, do we also need "rituals," like wailing walls, to help us deal with our grief and suffering?

10. How would you describe Lily and Zach's relationship? What drew them together? Did you root for them to be together?

11. Project into the future. Does Lily ever see her father again? Does she become a beekeeper? A writer? What happens to Rosaleen? What happens to Lily and Zach? Who would Zach be today?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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