The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Well, normally I write up a little review of the book, but since I know that this entry is primarily for those of you who are reading “The Secret Life of Bees” for a freshman honors’ requirement, maybe I can try a different tactic. As I don’t have to convince you to read the book (you are reading anyway), let me just mention that there’s a nice little summary of the book at the end under the title “Introduction to ‘The Secret Life of Bees.’” It’s much like what I would have to say in summary. There are also questions meant for a discussion group and you might want to ask and answer one of those here. So far I’ve noticed that the comments from incoming freshmen on summer reading have a great deal to do with whether you can relate to the character—put yourself in his or her mindset—and that’s important because the author has probably failed if you can’t. However, as you engage in the honors program in high school, you’re going to find that you’ll be asked for analysis of the books you read, and that requires deeper thought. Answering some of the discussion questions such as “Who is the queen bee in this story?” will be a good start on your analytical journey.
I first read “The Secret Life of Bees” when it came out. I was thinking that was a couple of years ago, but times flies, as they say, and it has been more like six years. So I needed to reread the entire book rather than take a quick glance. And although I think that this is a good book—and a perfect choice for ninth grade summer reading—I don’t think it’s a great book. The same things bothered me on the second reading as bothered me on the first. The story sewed up too neatly. I got a bit tired of the quotes about the lives of bees and then seeing how Lily’s life and the lives of those around her matched the bees. I also got tired of being knocked over the head with the ‘deep’ spiritual and emotional lives of the bee women and Lily’s connection to the power of all that earth mothering. It was just too heavy-handed for me.
I’ve always felt that the best discussion centered on this book would be a comparison to Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Unfortunately, I doubt that any of you have read that book—and now that reading it is out of fashion (not very PC), you probably won’t read it in eleventh grade as students did at one time. But “The Secret Life of Bees,” either purposefully or on an unconscious level, is modeled after “Huck Finn” and I don’t doubt that some PhD candidate is writing about this at this very moment.
If you do get the chance to select a great work of American fiction and are asked to compare it to something contemporary, picking” HF” and “TSLoB” would be a blast. Lily and Rosaleen could be compared to Huck and Jim. Jim, the Black outcast (slave) on the run from a Southern society that takes away his human rights. Huck, the motherless child of a horrific father who physically and emotionally abuses him. Their dependence on one another to escape. Huck’s fluid lying to help himself and Jim. Jim’s need, even as the adult, to depend on Huck because the society gives more value to the child than the man who is black. Jim as a surrogate father and his love for Huck.
Obviously, I think that “HF” is a much better book—this is because the characters are more real to me; they are more deeply flawed. Huck helps Jim in the same way that Lily helps Rosaleen, but because of his upbringing in a racist society, he doubts that he is doing the right thing and believes he’ll go to hell for it. This is ironic, and irony abounds in the novel. It’s what could have made “TSLoB” great, too, but it’s missing.
As just a little sidebar, let me talk about the discussion question “Have you ever heard of ‘kneeling on grits?’” I was thinking as I read the book that, being Southern California kids, you may not even know what grits are. It’s grain (usually corn–hominy) that’s only coarsely ground. When boiled, it makes a sort of cereal. But when it’s still dry, it’s sharp and rock hard. I’ve only ever known one person who as a child was punished by kneeling, not on grits, but on split peas. The result was that when she grew up, she moved away from her parents and would NEVER allow them to see their grandchildren. I think that gives us a pretty good idea of the harshness of such a punishment.
Another of the discussion questions asks you to project into the future. I kept thinking about Rosaleen voting. The book ends on a happy note with Rosaleen registering, but at that time, and in that place, trying to vote might have cost her her life.
A penny for your thoughts.
Borders (the bookstore) is doing some promotional stuff that you might be interested in if you have chosen to read the novel for Frosh Honors.
Excerpt from the book:
Super quick interview with the author (Sue Monk Kidd) on making the book into a movie:
Video clip of the upcoming movie: