Honey Bus (May)

The Honey Bus:  A Memoir of Loss, Courage, and a Girl Saved by Bees
Meredith May, 2019
Park Row Books
336 pp.

An extraordinary story of a young girl who finds solace in one of nature’s most mysterious and beguiling creatures: the honeybee.

Meredith May recalls the first time a honeybee crawled on her arm.

She was five years old, her parents had recently split and suddenly she found herself in the care of her grandfather, an eccentric beekeeper who made honey in a rusty old military bus in the yard.

That first close encounter with a bee was at once terrifying and exhilarating for May, and in that moment she discovered that everything she needed to know about life and family was right before her eyes, in the secret world of bees.

May was drawn to the art of beekeeping as an escape from her troubled reality.

Her mother had receded into a volatile cycle of madness and despair and spent most days locked away in the bedroom. It was during this pivotal time in May’s childhood that she learned to take care of herself, forged an unbreakable bond with her grandfather and opened her eyes to the magic and wisdom of nature.

The bees became a guiding force in May’s life, teaching her about family and community, loyalty and survival and the unequivocal relationship between a mother and her child.

Part memoir, part beekeeping odyssey, The Honey Bus is an remarkable story about finding home in the most unusual of places, and how a tiny, little-understood insect could save a life. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Meredith May spent sixteen years at the San Francisco Chronicle, where her narrative reporting won the PEN USA Literary Award for Journalism and was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. The Honey Bus (2019) is May's first solo book. She also coauthored I, Who Did Not Die (2017), the true story of a 13-year-old Iranian child soldier who saved an enemy combatant's life during the Iran-Iraq War.

A former professor of journalism and podcasting at Mills College in Oakland, California, May lives in San Francisco, where she rows on the Bay. She is a fifth-generation beekeeper and keeps several hives in a community garden. (Adapted from the publisher and the author's website.)

Book Reviews
[A] powerful account of growing up in 1970s California.… May learned that, unlike her mother, she needed to look at what she had… rather than what was missing. May’s chronicle of overcoming obstacles and forging ahead is moving and thoughtful.
Publishers Weekly

Award-winning journalist May worked at the San Francisco Chronicle for many years, but she's also a fifth-generation beekeeper, the real thrust of this memoir.… Lots of in-house love for this one
Library Journal

A] sharply visceral memoir.

While [May's] subject may be honeybees, they serve as a launching point for a tale of self-discovery…. A fascinating and hopeful book of family, bees, and how "even when [children] are overwhelmed with despair, nature has special ways to keep them safe."
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The Honey Bus begins with a swarm-catching expedition gone wrong, and Grandpa has to rescue Meredith from stinging honey bees. Why do you think the book begins with this scene? How are the themes it sets up explored later in the story?

2. A major thread in The Honey Bus is the notion of biological versus chosen family. What kind of role do Grandpa and the bees play in Meredith’s life, and how do they shape the person she becomes? Is there someone in your own life who had a similar impact on you?

3. Meredith’s mother rarely leaves the bedroom and her mood sways between fragile and frantic. Grandpa, by contrast, is a soft-spoken Big Sur mountain man who loves the outdoors. How do these different personalities affect the way Meredith sees the world? How do they dictate family dynamics?

4. One way Meredith clings to the memory of her father is by listening to The Beatles, even though the music makes her cry. Does this resonate with your sense of music and visceral memory? Do you have songs that transport you back in time or make you feel strong emotions?

5. Reflecting on her childhood, Meredith writes:

I gravitated toward bees because I sensed that the hive held ancient wisdom to teach me the things that my parents could not. It is from the honeybee, a species that has been surviving for the last100 million years, that I learned how to persevere.

   What honeybee behavior does Meredith witness that informs her understanding of human nature and her own relationships? Has nature ever taught you something about yourself?

6. What was your comfort level with honeybees at the start of the book? Did it change by the end? How?

7. The Honey Bus title was taken from a hollowed-out ramshackle army bus in the backyard where Grandpa bottled honey. When Grandpa teaches Meredith how to harvest for the first time, she writes, "The honey glowed in my hands, like a living, breathing thing. It was warm, and I loved it because it made sense when nothing else did." Throughout the story Meredith and Grandpa keep retreating to the honey bus. What role does this space play in both of their lives?

8. When Meredith’s brother Matthew is ten, he’s given his own bedroom—in a camping trailer in the yard. Meredith envies his freedom, yet Matthew remembers shivering in the winters and feeling ostracized, sequestered outside until he eventually left for college. What do you make of this living arrangement, and how did it create different family experiences for the two siblings? If Matthew wrote a memoir, how do you imagine it would differ from his sister’s?

9. In the epilogue, Meredith relocates Grandpa’s last remaining beehive to San Francisco to start an apiary of her own in a community garden. A little boy visiting on a school trip tells her with pride that his grandfather keeps bees. Meredith tells him that he’s "the luckiest boy in the world." What do you make of this final scene?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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