I really enjoyed Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel for a number of reasons. One could call it a “harmless” meditation on the bonds of motherhood or sisterhood. One could also say it’s a spiritual adventure which doesn’t belong to any particular denomination (the Boatwright sisters have their own Mary-centric denomination). Set in 1964, it’s also a statement on the Civil Rights Movement and our perceptions of equality (certainly relevant to today’s political mess and us-vs.-them societal questions).
More than any other reason, the book shines because it’s a kind of celebration of the power of love and the human spirit. With August Boatwright, adolescent heroine Lily Owens finds the mother she’s never had and a community (‘colored,’ gasp, honey farmers) she can belong to. After running away from an abusive, rage-filled bigot father (a South Carolina peach farmer) Lily and her African-American nanny, Rosaleen, find a Home in Tiburon. The great tragedy is that Lily can’t pursue love with Zach Taylor because of his skin color (it’s still South Carolina in the 1960s). But Kidd lets us know that the two will remain close friends and that Zach has a real future as an ass-busting lawyer, so it works.
“The Secret Life of Bees” is a rich story that never drags and never tries to reveal some shocking human truth that people haven’t thought of before. There’s something to be said for that kind of ‘simplicity’ and containment. As the story comes full-circle (in tidy, predictable fashion) and offers a few lessons about that other world (The South, 50 years ago) this is the kind of book that should probably be required reading in high school.