The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd. Viking. 303 pages. $24.95.
On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. The racial policies it enacted brought him more hate mail than did his policies in Vietnam. The waves of violence that had been cresting over civil rights activists and demonstrators would beat down upon them in Selma, Birmingham, Watts, and Newark over the next four long, hot summers.
Sue Monk Kidd's debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees, takes place during the sultry summer of 1964 in small-town South Carolina. Fourteen-year old Lily Owens lives on a peach farm with her abusive father T. Ray. Lily is tormented by jumbled memories of her mother's death, whom she had accidentally shot 10 years earlier when her mother and T. Ray were fighting. T. Ray not only has no affection to spare for Lily, but forbids her even to mention her mother.
When T. Ray taunts Lily, claiming her mother never loved her, she flees with their black housekeeper, Rosaleen, who has been beaten up and arrested on her way to a voters' rally. One of Lily's few treasures is a picture of a Black Madonna with "Tiburon, S.C." written on the back. Since it had once belonged to her mother, Tiburon is as good a destination for her as any.
In Tiburon, she and Rosaleen discover that the picture was the label on a honey jar from a local apiary run by three sisters May, June and August Boatwright. With several twists in plot that strain, but do not defeat, plausibility, the Boatwright sisters take in the fugitives, providing them, temporarily, with the love, security, and dignity that neither of them had ever known.
The Boatwright sisters have even fashioned their own religion: the Daughters of Mary. This group of strong women (and one man) worship a Black Madonna with a mixture of Christian and pagan rituals. They also offer each other the support and respect their community denies them. Before long, however, racial tensions threaten to destroy their haven and very nearly succeed.
Sue Monk Kidd is a direct literary descendant of Carson McCullers. The inner life of an affection-starved, motherless adolescent, the devastation a husband and wife can inflict upon each other and the all but insuperable boundaries of race are all central elements in McCullers fiction and provide the foundation of The Secret Life of Bees.
Yet Monk Kidd's vision of the South is a brighter one than McCullers'. McCullers, a native of Georgia who died in 1967, once remarked, "I must go home periodically to renew my sense of horror." McCullers did not live to see much fulfillment of the social changes that were sending tremors throughout the North and South. Monk Kidd's African-American characters, however, have education and aspirations that are rarely to be found in the fiction of the 1960s: a successful and respected woman businessowner who reads Bronte, a cellist, a scholarship student and aspiring lawyer, among others.
Monk Kidd has witnessed a South McCullers could not have imagined. She can, therefore, sweeten the pot. Yet in The Secret Life of Bees, inspiring as it is, there is a touch too much honey.
Tess Lewis has published translations from French and German and writes essays for the Hudson Review and the New Criterion. She has a master's degree in English literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes scholar.