“The Secret Life of Bees” is a novel written in 2001 by Sue Monk Kidd. The novel was an immediate success, quickly attaining the New York Times bestseller list and staying there for two years. It won the 2004 Book Sense of the Year award and was made into a film starring Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifa.
The novel has sold more than six million copies and has been distributed in thirty-five countries. It has been featured on Good Morning America and in USA Today. It was also nominated for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction in England.
The book is the story of a fourteen-year-old girl named Lily Owens who lives with her abusive father and beloved nanny. One day, Lily’s nanny, a black woman, sets out to vote but is accosted by racists who try to stop her. When the nanny, Rosaleen, defends herself she is arrested. Lily’s father refuses to bail the woman out of jail and this forces Lily to break the woman out herself.
Lily and Rosaleen run away from their town of Sylvan, South Carolina and go in search of the last information that Lily has about her deceased mother, a picture of the Virgin Mary with the word “Tiburon” on it. The two eventually reach the town of Tiburon where they are taken in by a family of sisters who run a beekeeping farm.
The oldest sister, August begins to become somewhat of a surrogate mother for Lily and teaches her how to be a beekeeper. After a while, Lily discovers that August did know her mother and that the woman abandoned her when she was a baby. Lily is upset by this news, but grateful to know the truth and to have her new family in the town of Tiburon. When Lily’s father finds out where she is and comes to bring her back with him Lily is able to stand up to him and insist on staying in Tiburon. He agrees to let her and Lily gets all of the love and maternal affection she has always craved living with the sisters on their farm.
The book opens on a warm day in 1964. A young girl named Lily lies on her bed and thinks about the bees that live in the walls of her bedroom.
Lily tells us that she lives with her father in a house outside Sylvan, South Carolina. She considers her father to be standoffish if not downright cruel. She does not call him daddy but exclusively refers to him as T. Ray, as his name is Terrance Ray.
Also sharing the house is Lily’s nanny and housekeeper, a black woman named Rosaleen. Lily begins to reminisce about her mother who died ten years earlier when she was four years old. Lily remembers the last memory she has of her mother. Her mother and T. Ray were having a fight and her mother pulled a gun out of a closet. The two began to get into a physical fight when the gun fell to the floor. Lily recalls that she picked up the gun and heard a loud noise. Lily explains that the other children at school judge her for not having a mother and it has been hard for her to make friends. T. Ray runs a peach farm in their small town and Lily has a roadside stand at which she sells her father’s peaches. However, she reveals that she dislikes selling peaches.
T. Ray strictly forbids Lily from joining any school clubs or activities and she can only wear the clothes that she makes herself. As her father refuses to talk about her mother, Lily keeps everything she has left of the woman in a tin box that she buries out in the orchard. Inside are a photo of her mother, a pair of her gloves and a small picture of the Virgin Mary with the words ‘Tiburon S.C.’ inscribed on the back. She routinely digs up the box when she is feeling sad.
The following morning, Lily catches a bee in a jar. Rosaleen disapproves of this but ultimately lets her keep it as she loves Lily. That night after selling peaches all day, Lily attempts to talk to her father about her upcoming birthday but he ignores her. She goes out into the orchard to dig up her tin box and accidentally falls asleep outside. T. Ray finds her and assumes that she went out there to meet a boy. In punishment, he makes her kneel on dried grits until her knees are bleeding. After she returns to her room, Lily thinks that she will free the bee from the jar but when she opens the jar the bee does not escape.
The next morning, Rosaleen goes into town to register to vote under the new Civil Rights act. She brings Lilly along. Some white men taunt Rosaleen and she spits chewing tobacco on them. The men call the police and Rosaleen and Lily are taken to jail. A policeman named Avery Gatson brings Rosaleen and Lily into jail while the three white men who taunted them follow them into the building. The men demand an apology from Rosaleen and when she refuses one strikes her on the head with a flashlight.
T. Ray soon arrives to bring Lily home but he does not bail out Rosaleen. T. Ray tells Lily that one of the men who attacked Rosaleen, the man named Franklin Posey is the biggest racist in town and he will probably kill Rosaleen if she refuses to apologize. Once they are back home, T. Ray reproaches Lily for her actions but she stands up for herself. She informs him that her mother will not let him hurt her but T. Ray only laughs at the idea that her mother is watching over her from heaven. He insists that Deborah, her mother, had given up on her before she died. This insinuation deeply hurts Lily and she returns to her room. Noticing that the bee jar is now empty, she resolves to run away too.
Lily slips out of her house and heads toward the jail where she finds that the three men were allowed into the jail to beat Rosaleen father, and that she has been moved to the hospital. Lily and Rosaleen manage to evade the hospital security and leave. They go to the highway and begin to hitchhike out of town. A man with a cantaloupe truck picks them up and takes them to within three miles of their destination, Tiburon.
While walking the rest of the way, Rosaleen discovers that they are heading to Tiburon and accuses Lily of only wanting to run away for herself. The two split up, but later Lily finds Rosaleen bathing in a river and joins her.
The next morning, after sleeping beside the river, Lily and Rosaleen head into Tiburon feeling as if they are starting their new lives. Lily sees a general store and goes in, telling the clerk that she is in town to visit her grandmother as she buys some food and steals some stuff for Rosaleen. While paying for the food, Lily notices a group of honey jars on the counter that bear the picture of the black Virgin Mary that she has from her mother. The clerk of the store tells her that the honey is made by a woman named August Boatwright who lives on the other side of town. Lily becomes convinced that this woman must have known her mother and tells Rosaleen the news.
The two travel to August Boatwright’s house which is painted a garish shade of bright pink. Out front, August works in her beehives while wearing a beekeeping suit. August is a middle-aged black woman who lives with her sisters, June, and May. Lily spontaneously tells the women that she and Rosaleen have nowhere to go and that her mother has been dead for many years while her father died in a tractor accident a week ago. She says that she and Rosaleen are going to Virginia to stay with her aunt, Bernie. Despite June’s protests, August asks the girls to stay in the house with them. She brings them outside to the honey house, the outdoor building where the women harvest their honey to sell. August tells the girls that they will be staying there.
Over dinner, August relates that she inherited the bee farm from her grandfather. While exploring the farm, Lily comes across a wall filled with unusual strips of paper but decides to leave them be and walks to a nearby stream. August decides that while they two are staying at the Boatwright house they might as well help out. Rosaleen is sent to help with the housework while Lily is to learn to be a beekeeper.
One night, the more delicate sister, May has a breakdown and must be shown to the strange wall with the paper slips. August tells Lily that she and her sisters and some others in the town worship the black Mary statue. She says that they are nominally Catholic but have embellished their religion with a few extra things to make it fit them. They call themselves “The Daughters of Mary”.
August begins to teach Lily the art of beekeeping. She explains that there is a lot of love involved in caring for the bees and Lily begins to wish that August would love her like a daughter. Lily discovers that May has a mental condition and that she uses the wall with the paper slips as a therapeutic way of calming herself. August explains that May tends to see the whole world’s ills as her own. Rosaleen begins to feel some jealousy about the time that August and Lily are spending together.
One day Lily discover a tall man named Neil loitering around the house. She discovers that this man is June’s sweetheart but that she refuses to marry him. Still, he continues to ask for her hand. Later that day the rest of the Daughters of Mary—six women and one man, arrive at the house for their spiritual meeting. Lily observes a lot of singing and dancing during the meeting and all of the members of the group seem to converge around the black Mary statue.
August tells a story about the black Mary statue, which she calls ‘Our Lady of Chains’. She says that the statue was discovered in a river and then brought to a community of black slaves. The slaves worshiped it until it was taken away from them by their master and chained up. However, miraculously the statue was repeatedly found in other areas of the plantation, having seemingly escaped its chains.
Lily soon meets a fifteen-year-old boy named Zach who helps out on the bee farm. She finds herself attracted to Zach and begins to feel things that she has never felt before. The two being to flirt every day. They also share their aspirations. Lily tells Zach that she wants to be a schoolteacher and Zach confides that he wants to be a lawyer.
After a week at the Boatwright house, Rosaleen confronts Lily and asks her what she is intending to do there. She wonders if she thinks she can keep living in this fantasy with no repercussions. Lily begins to wonder how long she can stay in her wonderful new life before August finds out the truth about her. Rosaleen moves into the main house to share a room with May. Zach brings Lily a notebook and tells her to use it write stories. He then explains to her that society will never allow them to be together since he is a black man and she is a white woman.
A new shipment of Black Mary labels comes in and August asks Lily to help her apply them to the jars. They begin to talk a bit while doing so and August explains how she came to own the black Mary statue. She also confesses that she never married because she did not want to give up her free will, a question that Lily had been pondering. After they are done, the two women go out to the hives and listen to the sounds that the bees make the inside of them. August tells Lily that they need to have a talk later and Lily gets nervous, thinking that August has discovered her secret.
Later that day, Zach leaves to make a honey delivery to the office of a prominent lawyer in town, Clayton Forrest. Lily agrees to go with him. While waiting in the office, Lily sees a picture of Mr. Forrest with a young girl that she assumes is his daughter. She begins to feel guilty for abandoning her own father and decides to give him a call.
T. Ray becomes immediately hostile upon hearing her voice and berates her for running away. He asks her where she is and she refuses to tell him. Desperate for some connection, Lily asks her father if he knows what her favorite color is. He does not answer and threatens to beat her when he finds her. Lily hangs up the phone. When Zach and Mr. Forrest return, Mr. Forrest begins to ask Lily some personal questions about her home and her family. Lily pretends to feel ill to escape the questions and she and Zach head back to the Boatwright house.
That night, Lily goes into the main house to use the bathroom but stumbles across the black Mary statue sitting silently in a corner. She kneels in front of it and asks it for help, calling it ‘mother’. One day Lily sees May using an old technique for getting rid of roaches that she remembers her mother using. The technique is very specific and involves marshmallows and graham crackers. Lily begins to wonder if her mother had once lived in the Boatwright house. She asks May if she ever knew a woman named Deborah Fontanel. May confirms that she did. Lily is so overwhelmed by this news that she escapes to the honey house to rest. She determines to questions August about her mother, too but realizes that she is afraid to find out more about her.
Zach learns that a white movie star and his black girlfriend are coming to town to attend a showing at the local movie theater. He and Lily ride to the theater to see if they can catch a glimpse of the celebrities. Outside the theater, however, a group of white men is already waiting outside. Zach’s friends, who are black, being to taunt the men and one of them throws a bottle at them. When questioned, Zach and his friends refuse to confess who threw the bottle and all of them are taken to jail. Lily walks home by herself.
She discovers that Clayton Forrest is in charge of Zach’s case. He is speaking with August when Lily gets home and the group decides to keep the news of the arrest from May as she is so delicate. However, May soon finds out from Zach’s mother what happened. May does not appear to be immediately upset but walks out of the house and disappears for several hours.
Later, the police discover that she has committed suicide by drowning herself in the river. The police interrogate Lily and ask why she is living with a black woman. They tell her that it is below her. The Daughters of Mary hold a vigil for May and the following day, Zach is freed from jail. Lily realizes that she feels very close to the community and that she does not feel that they are different from her although she is white and they are black.
August and Lily cover the bee hives in black cloth for mourning. August and June discover May’s suicide note where she tells them to make sure to live their lives fully. June wonders if this means that she should marry Neil. The vigil goes for many days until one day Lily awakens and the sisters inform her that it is Mary day. Mary day, she discovers, is an annual two-day feast that the Daughters of Mary hold. There will be cakes and lights and dancing. Lily is excited by the prospect. During the preparations, Neil stops by to ask for June’s hand in marriage again, however, this time she accepts.
The Daughters of Mary arrive and the festival involves much praying and celebration of the Virgin Mary. That night, under the moonlight Zach and Lily, have their first kiss. The two promise to try and find a way to be together. Directly after her talk with Zach, Lily goes to find August to finally talk about her mother. When she finds August, they begin to talk and August reveals that she has known Lily’s identity all along. August confirms that she did know Lily’s mother as well. She says that she was a housekeeper in Deborah’s house when the girl was growing up and that she was the girls nanny from ages 4 to 19. Lily is eager to hear details from her mother’s childhood. She confesses that her father is not really dead, but that he was cruel to her so she ran away. Lily confesses that she accidentally killed her mother and tells August what her father said about her mother trying to abandon her before she did it. August then tells Lily that she loves her. She begins to talk a bit about Deborah’s past and how depressed she became shortly after marrying T. Ray. She says that Deborah contacted her to ask if she could stay on the farm. When she arrived, August expected her to be carrying her baby with her but was surprised to see that she was alone. Lily is upset to learn that her mother left her.
Lily tries to go to bed but finds herself too upset to sleep. She smashes a few honey jars in anger. The next morning, Rosaleen comes out and helps her clean up the jars. Rosaleen confesses that she knew a bit about Deborah leaving Lily but that she kept it to herself because she did not want to hurt her.
Later that day, August retrieves a box with Deborah’s belongings and gives it to Lily. Inside is a book of poetry, a mirror and a comb with some of her mother’s hair still in it. Also inside is a picture of herself as a baby with her mother. Lily begins to realize that her mother did, indeed love her but that maybe her life was more complicated than she’d imagined. Lily begins to heal over the next few days and the rest of the people in the house give her some space to do so. June begins to prepare for he wedding which is set for October.
When Lily finally exits the honey house to rejoin the Boatwrights she finds that Rosaleen is again preparing to register to vote. At first, Lily is shocked by this but August convinces her that it is a good thing and she realizes that she is proud of Rosaleen. Lily and August begin to work with the bees again. August confesses to Lily that she was hoping that the Virgin Mary would stand-in for Lily’s mother. She explains that Lily needs to find a mother inside her own self and rely on it. Lily takes her words to heart. A few hours later there is a knock at the door and T. Ray is standing on the other side.
T. Ray begins to get confused and yells at Lily as if she were Deborah. Lily is frightened into calling him ‘Daddy’ and this stops his tirade. He still insists that she return home with him. As T. Ray is about to drag Lily away, August and Rosaleen arrive. August, knowing that T. Ray will not leave without saving face, tells him that she needs Lily’s help on the bee farm. This assuages T. Ray and he agrees to leave Lily alone. As he is leaving, Lily can’t help but ask him again who shot her mother. He remains firm that she did.
At the end of the book, Lily remains in the Boatwright house and begins attending school with Zach. She begins to forgive her mother and realizes that she attained many new mothers in the form of the Boatwright sisters and the Daughters of Mary.
Lily Owens – the main character of the novel, a fourteen-year-old girl who is mistreated by her father and desperate to escape his household. In the beginning of the book, she runs away with her nanny and friend, Rosaleen, following the trail that her dead mother unknowingly left behind. Lily and Rosaleen eventually make it to the Boatwright house where they find love and happiness.
“The Secret Life of Bees” is primary, a coming-of-age novel about Lily. As such it presents her mental and physical maturation and her narration is the central voice of the novel. Because the story is told from Lily’s perspective, readers must use her perceptions to reach their own interpretations.
Lily’s experiences in her hometown of Sylvan and Tiburon teach us about love, racism, and community, among other things. It is through her that we learn about the importance of having the strength and strong women in particular. Understanding Lily is integral to interpreting the novel because she is not only the main character but also the narrator. Readers must pay attention to how she performs in her own narrative and be conscious of what exactly she chooses to reveal about herself and how she reveals it.
Lily’s determination, bravery, and longing for a mother are her most important character traits. Lily draws a surge of confidence from seeing Rosaleen stand up to a group of racist white men and uses this confidence to escape her father and begin the search for the truth of her mother’s past.
Lily risks breaking Rosaleen out of jail and runs off to Tiburon on the slim chance that she will find information about her mother because of a deep longing for love. She determines to discover any leftover evidence that her mother was in Tiburon even though she has no knowledge that she ever spent more than a few hours there.
Lily’s determination is rewarded, however at the climax of the novel when August reveals that she knew Deborah when the woman was growing up and Lily begins to see August as a surrogate mother. Lily matures into a woman over the course of the novel. She finally begins to see herself surrounded, not just by a community but a community of strong, powerful female figures.
She begins to be inspired in this environment and becomes more hardworking after working with the bees for so long. Her relationship with Zach inspires her to be more creative and sensitive and she begins working toward becoming an English teacher in earnest because of his belief in her.
By the time that Lily learns the truth of her mother’s abandonment of her, she is a strong enough character to handle it. She is mature enough to understand and process the feelings that she receives with this news and also mature enough to begin to love her mother despite the woman’s flaws.
Lily’s confrontation of her father at the end of the book is a sure sign of how much she has grown and matured. She stands up to her father and thus, to the world that she has moved away from. At the end of the book, Lily is a mature woman who has taken a proactive stance in her own life.
August Boatwright – Lily’s surrogate mother-figure. August is a black woman who runs a successful business in the nineteen-sixties, a fact that alone makes her respectable and unique. She also happens to own a great deal of land and has turned up her nose at the normal conventions of marriage. August does not flinch away from the opportunity to take care of a runaway girl even though the girl is white. She is an accepting, warm person and a rare kind soul.
Through August’s guiding of Lily into maturity, and through her religion she becomes somewhat of a spiritual figure in the book. She is something of a wise sage that guides the young Lily into adulthood. August becomes a trusted friend to Lily and then a surrogate mother and guardian angel. She has created a wonderful sense of community in the town of Tiburon and does not hesitate to invite Lily into it. August’s love saves Lily in the same way that it has kept May alive, softened June’s harshness, given Zach a future to work toward and supported and created the Daughter of Mary.
Zach Taylor – the paid farm hand at the Boatwright’s bee farm, Zach is a fifteen-year-old boy who wishes to be a lawyer when he grows up and is actively working toward it. Zach often provides a foil for Lily’s character as he has grown up with the love and support of the Boatwright sisters and his own family.
He is handsome, intelligent, good at sports and hardworking and has seen much praise and payment for these accomplishments. However, despite the idyllic front, as a black man in the nineteen-sixties, Zach does experience many disadvantages that Lily does not realize. However, Zach chooses not to let other people’s racism damage what he dreams about for his future. He resolves to become a lawyer, despite the fact that he does not even know any black lawyers and also chooses to peruse a relationship with Lily, despite their differences in race.
Zach is also shown to be very brave and loyal. When his friend throws a bottle at a white man outside the movie theater, Zach refuses to confess which friend did it and is thrown in jail for this offense. The time in jail only seems to strengthen his resolve to change the course of his life. Zach serves as a model of self-discipline for Lily as well as offering her love. He helps her see that she can transcend her situation. Readers can look at Zach and see how Lily would have been if she had started out with different advantages and whom she will grow to be.
Rosaleen Daise – Lily’s nanny, housekeeper and only friend at the beginning of the novel. Rosaleen is a black woman who works in T. Ray’s household. We are told that she used to work as a peach picker in the fields around the house but after Lily’s mother died, T.Ray brought her into the house to take care of Lily. Rosaleen is a large woman who speaks her mind and stands up to the men who make racist comments to her at the beginning of the book. Rosaleen’s determination is a big part of her character and often why she clashes with Lily throughout the book. Rosaleen is seemingly fearless and decides to exercise her right to vote at a time when a black woman doing so was frowned upon in the south.
She loves Lily a great deal and often helps to mediate abusive situations between the girl and her father. When Rosaleen gets to Tiburon, she does not fall in with the Boatwrights quite as quickly as Lily. At first, she is jealous of Lily and August’s relationship, perhaps feeling left out and slighted that Lily has found a mother figure that was not her. But soon she warms up to the community and begins to love the Boatwrights as Lily does.
May Boatwright – the sister of August and June and a close friend to Rosaleen. May is a very nervous, anxious woman whose mental health is tenuous. She once had a twin sister who committed suicide at a very young age. Since that incident, May herself has become very depressed and sensitive. When she is having an episode, May often sings the song ‘Oh! Susanna’ and leaves the room to visit a wailing wall that she has constructed outside the house.
May is a very warm and loving person, who takes care of the house for the sisters. However, she is not able to hold her demons back forever and eventually commits suicide by drowning herself in the river.
Sue Monk Kidd Biography
Sue Monk Kidd was born in Sylvester, Georgia in 1948. She graduated with a B.S. In nursing from Texas Christian University in 1970. After this, she worked as a registered nurse and nursing instructor for many years at the Medical College of Georgia.
In her 30’s, she was influenced to take a writing course at a university in South Carolina and began attending writers conferences. A personal essay that she wrote in the class was eventually published in Reader’s Digest and a Christian magazine called Guideposts. Kidd went on to become a Contributing Editor at the magazine.
Kidd’s first three books are spiritual in nature. They are memoirs about her own experiences with Christianity and her journey from evangelical Christianity to feminism. Her first fictional novel, ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ (2001) received much critical acclaim and was an instant success and a New York Times bestseller. Kidd’s second novel, ‘The Mermaid Chair’ (2005) received less praise but was still well received. Kidd’s newest novel, published in 2014 is called ‘The Invention of Wings’ and is based on the life of an antebellum abolitionist and women rights advocate Sarah Grimke. It debuted at Number one on the New York Times bestseller list and was chosen for Oprah’s book club.
Kidd married a man named Sanford Kidd and the two have two grown children. She currently lives in Florida.