Secret Life Of Bees Summary

Sue Monk Kidd

Secret Life Of Bees

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Secret Life Of Bees Summary

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An award-winning coming-of-age story, The Secret Life of Bees explores themes of family, female community, and racial prejudice through the tale of a young girl’s search for acceptance, love, and a safe and happy home. It begins with the narrator, Lily Melissa Owens, recalling how her life changed drastically in 1962, when she was a 14-year-old white girl living in South Carolina. She thinks happily of bees visiting her in her room that summer and remembers capturing some of them in a jar. However, she mostly remembers the start of the summer as an unhappy time, where she lived as an outsider, unloved by her cruel and abusive father, T. Ray, and haunted by a terrible half-memory in which she believes she accidentally shot and killed her mother, Deborah, when she was a tiny child.

When Lily’s nanny, a Black woman named Rosaleen, travels into town to register to vote, Lily goes with her, but is shocked and horrified when three white men begin abusing and then beating Rosaleen. When Rosaleen is subsequently arrested by the police, Lily is taken with her to the jail. When T. Ray picks her up, he reprimands Lily and terrifies her by saying that the men will probably kill Rosaleen. Later, when Lily stands up to her father, he lashes out at her by saying that, on the day her mother died, she had only been in the house to collect her clothes before leaving, abandoning Lily. Traumatized, Lily notices that the bees she had captured have escaped and decides she should also, fleeing with a bag of items that once belonged to her mother, including a picture of a Black Mary, mother of Jesus, with the name of a town, Tiburon, written on the back. After Lily finds Rosaleen in the local hospital, recovering from a beating from racist police officers, the two of them hitchhike to the town.

When they arrive in Tiburon, Lily and Rosaleen discover that the picture is the label from a honey jar.They are directed to the bright pink house of the Boatwrights, a groupof Black sisters who run a successful honey business. Responding to a tale Lily invents to explain their need for help, August Boatwright invites them to stay and offers to teach Lily beekeeping. Here, both Lily and Rosaleen become part of a close and supportive Black community who call themselves the Daughters of Maryand pray toa large statue of a Black Mary. Through this, Lily gets to know August and her sisters—the withdrawn and suspicious June and the sorrowful and fragile May—as well as Zach, a Black teenager who helps with the bees. A mutual attraction develops between Lily and Zach and they encourage each other to follow their dreams of becoming a writer and a lawyer respectively.

Although she feels increasingly guilty about it, Lily has still not told the Boatwrights her true family history out of fear that she will be sent back to her father. This fear increases when she impulsively telephones her father, who becomes angry and threatens to find her and punish her. One day, she manages to overcome this fear just enough to ask May if she knew Deborah, while carefully avoiding revealing that she is Deborah’s daughter. She learns from May that her mother had stayed with the Boatwrights several years ago. She intends to ask the Boatwrights more questions but is distracted when Zach is wrongfully arrested while in town with her. Distressed, she returns to the house and learns that the other Boatwrights intend to hide Zach’s arrest from May because she is so emotionally fragile. However, May finds out anyway after Zach calls from prison and, pushed over the edge, she drowns herself in the local river.

Several days of mourning follow May’s death, and then a funeral, after which Zach is released from prison without charge. The community then celebrate “Mary Day” and, during the festivities, Lily takes a walk with Zach and they kiss. However, they also acknowledge that society’s racism means they cannot currently be together, although they promise to make their relationship work in the future. Later, when Lily finally tells August the truth about her family, including how she accidentally killed her own mother, she is shocked to learn that August knew who she was the whole time. August explains that she had once worked for Deborah’s family and that Deborah had stayed with the Boatwrights shortly after Lily was born while she was recovering from a breakdown and planning to divorce T. Ray.

Lily is devastated and disillusioned, furious with her mother for abandoning her to stay with August. However, with August’s guidance, she begins to forgive her mother for her imperfections and starts to feel she was loved by her. After he traces her earlier call back to the lawyer’s office, T. Ray visits Lily at the Boatwrights’ house where they argue, and T. Ray strikes her. Afterwards, however, Lily at least partially forgives him too, having recognized that he is also imperfect and was struggling to cope with Deborah leaving him. Nevertheless, she is glad that August manages to convince him to let her stay with the Boatwrights. Finally, after speaking to her father, she also manages to forgive herself for accidentally killing her mother when she was young. The novel closes with Lily attending high school with Zach, having grown strong and confident, and having learned to forgive, to believe in herself, and to love and be loved.

The Secret Life of Bees has been widely celebrated by both critics and the general public and is particularly well regarded for its treatment of racism as irrational but still insidious and destructive. Since its publication in 2001, it has been published in thirty-five countries and has received several nominations and awards. It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 125 weeks and was adapted into a successful film in 2008.