The Bumblebee Flies Anyway
is a young adult novel by Robert Cormier. First published in 1983, it received a nomination for the 1985 Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award. It tells the story of a healthy teenage boy locked in an experimental clinic for the terminally ill, with no memory of how he got there. Critics praise the book for its characterization and indeterminate ending. Cormier was an author, reporter, and columnist. His books usually include psychological or physical abuse, betrayal, conspiracy, and illness. Elijah Wood starred in the movie adaptation of The Bumblebee Flies Anyway
Barney Snow is sixteen years old and living in the “Complex.” He can’t remember how he got to the Complex, and he barely remembers anything about his life before arriving there. The kids around him are dying from terminal diseases, but he isn’t sick. He doesn’t understand why anyone would want him in the Complex, because he reminds the kids what it is like to be healthy.
What Barney pieces together first is that he is part of a social and medical experiment. The dying children and teenagers are also part of this mysterious program. According to Barney, the terminally ill patients all knew what they signed up for before entering the Complex. The doctors treat them with experimental drugs, hoping that, if the patients feel better, they can save lives in the long run.
Barney struggles to understand what he has in common with these patients. They don’t treat him any differently. They treat him like one of their own, although he is clearly not. He wants to drive away from the Complex in the Bumblebee, an old car in the junkyard across from the facility. Although he is not sick, the doctors do not let him leave the Complex for any reason because apparently, this affects the results.
Despite his clean bill of health, one doctor, the Handyman, gives Barney medicine every day. Barney wonders what is in the medicine, but the Handyman assures him that it is for his own good. Barney thinks that if he obeys the doctors they will let him out sooner, and so he goes along with whatever they tell him.
One day, Barney meets a patient called Mazzo. Mazzo is bedbound and won’t live much longer. His sister, Cassie, visits him all the time. Barney thinks Cassie is beautiful, although he is too shy to admit how he feels. Cassie, however, senses how Barney feels. She encourages his affections because she likes the attention. Barney doesn’t realize that she is using him.
Slowly, Barney’s memories return to him. He remembers having a car accident just before he woke up in the Complex. His instincts tell him that someone deliberately ran his car off the road. The Handyman encourages him to explore these feelings, telling him that losing his memories are part of the experiment.
Barney doesn’t understand what the Handyman means. The Handyman explains that, when Barney signed up to join the Complex, he agreed to forget his past life. His old life no longer matters. Barney can’t see how this is a good idea, but he also doesn’t know how to recover his former self.
Meanwhile, Mazzo’s condition deteriorates. He asks Barney to pull the plug on his life support machine. Barney refuses to do so because he doesn’t want Mazzo to die. Mazzo stops talking to him because he feels that no one takes his condition seriously. With no one to talk to, Barney starts hanging out in the attic, building model cars from junkyard parts.
Barney has a talent for building things. The model car works, and he can drive it around the Complex. He shows it to Mazzo, who isn’t impressed, and so he plays with it by himself. One day, he finds a secret room. The room triggers memories of the car crash and he blanks out. When he awakens, the doctors tell him the truth about his purpose in the Complex.
Barney has terminal bone cancer. He doesn’t remember the cancer because the doctors want to test a theory. They want to know if someone can “heal” themselves if they forget that they’re sick. They hope to prove that memory erasure is an effective cancer treatment. The problem is that, now Barney knows about the cancer, the test results can’t be trusted.
Barney has a choice: forget everything all over again or live with knowing that he has terminal bone cancer. Barney chooses knowledge. He doesn’t want to forget Cassie or the model car. The doctors warn him that his cancer is more aggressive now than before, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t want to waste what’s left of his life forgetting everyone.
Barney weakens and he loses his memories anyway. The doctors place him in hospice. Cassie visits him there. He doesn’t remember Cassie, but she tells him the story of how they met. Barney remembers her, and it is implied that he later dies knowing someone he loved cared about him, too.