Sue Monk Kidd is a relatively new Southern writer. The Secret Life of Bees (Bees) (2002) is her first work of fiction, a work that has been a tremendous success by all secular accounts. On the New York Times Bestseller list for more than 2 years, it has been chosen by countless book clubs.
Kidd herself sums up the novel with the word “Homecoming,” although many other reviews usually describe this novel as a coming of age story. In fact, Kidd’s web page describes it as such: “powerful story of coming-of- age, race-relations, the ability of love to transform our lives and the often unacknowledged longing for the universal feminine divine, the novel tells the story of a fourteen year old Lily, who runs away with her black housekeeper in 1964 in South Carolina and the sanctuary they both find in the home of three eccentric beekeeping sisters.”
There is no doubt that Kidd has genuine talent; my favorite feature, if you will, of the novel is Kidd’s amazing characterization of Lily, Rosaleen (her black housekeeper and surrogate mother), Zach (a young black boy), and the three bee-keeping sisters (August, May, and June). I found myself continuing to read long after the plot ceased being appealing simply because I was enjoying the time with these quirky characters. As is typical of much Southern fiction, SLB centers on the relationships the protagonist has with these characters and her father, T. Ray; there is racial tension and reconciliation, intergenerational angst, and spiritual connection between characters.
The plot of Bees felt a bit contrived for me, like Kidd was trying too hard. If Kidd wasn’t such a talented author on the characterization and setting front, then the book would fall flat. On the surface, it’s rather typical of most coming-of-age stories: girl’s mother dies when she’s little, father is mean, she runs away and “finds herself” in a new group of people/vocation. The end.
What Kidd does, though, that makes this plot jump off the predictability diving board and land, with a large splash, into the pool of “out there” is her emphasis on the divine feminine. The motif of the Black Madonna is present almost from the beginning of the novel; a picture of her is one of Lily’s only mementos of her late mother. The quest to find this Black Madonna, hoping it will be a clue to her mother’s life, is partly what drives Lily throughout the book. The bee keepers are the source of the picture as they put this picture on all the labels of the honey they make. But it’s more than that: they have a black figurehead from a ship that they worship (no other word for it, really), they have a group called the Daughters of Mary, and they talk about Mary all the time. The idea of the divine feminine is so pervasive in this book, it’s inescapable. It’s a little too much for me to really enjoy the book. What I found so especially disturbing was the conclusion at the end of the book.
I’m glad Kidd refused the temptation to make things end perfectly for Lily; her mother was indeed a sinner like the rest of us. Lily herself has committed a large atrocity/crime. Yet, for August to tell Lily that the answer lies within herself (within Lily) was the nail in the coffin for this book for me. The answer does not lie in ourselves. We, in and of ourselves, are not strong enough to meet all of life’s demands. Kidd goes one step further from this typical sentiment and claims that Mary is in each of us, helping us to live better.
Kidd has written other books, most notably in its connection to the philosophy and theology behind Bees, is her earlier nonfiction work, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. I’ll end with the summary of this book as written on her website: “With the exceptional storytelling skills that have helped make her name, the acclaimed author … tells her very personal story of the fear, anger, healing, and freedom she experienced on the path toward the wholeness that women have lost within patriarchal faith traditions. From a jarring encounter with sexism in a suburban drugstore, to monastery retreats and to rituals in the caves of Crete, she reveals a new level of feminine spiritual consciousness for all women— one that retains a meaningful connection with the “deep song of Christianity,” embraces the sacredness of ordinary women’s experience, and has the power to transform in the most positive ways every fundamental relationship in a woman’s life— her marriage, her career, and her religion.”