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.
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
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.
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