I went back recently to a novel I had earlier read, The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd (New York: Penguin, 2002). The heroine and narrator of this book, Lily Owens, is a 14 year old white teenager who runs away from home with Rosaleen, her nanny and the family maid. The setting is South Carolina, 1964, during the founding days of the civil rights movement. Lily seeks to escape from her cruel father, T. Ray. She finds shelter with a group of African-American sisters who keep bees and carry on a mystical devotion to a black madonna statue (originally a boat’s masthead).
This book could be read on many levels: as a story about place (the deep South), about race, about gender, or about history. But the idea that brought me back to thinking about the story of Lily Owens is the endurance of loss.
The theme of loss pervades the novel. There is first Lily’s loss of her mother, who earlier died in a gun incident in which Lily fears responsibility. There is the loss of her childhood home. There is the loss of innocence, including Lily’s insistent belief that her mother could not have abandoned her for a long time when her mother was feeling desolate. There is the loss of one troubled beekeeping sister to suicide by drowning.
Kidd writes with poetic flair but also concreteness, embodying the famous advice of William Carlos Williams, “–Say it, no ideas but in things–” (from his enormous poem, “Paterson”). Searching for Rosaleen during the initial escape sequence, and anxious she has has lost her, Lily observes: ”Looking up, I noticed that the tree I’d fallen beneath was practically bald….Even in the dark I could see that it was dying…That was the absolute way of things. Loss takes up inside of everything sooner or later and eats right through it.” (p. 55)
How do we bear up under loss, this thing that “eats right through” everything and leaves it denuded? What allows us to continue? All of us face loss, including potentially the very kinds of loss faced by Lily Owens: of our parents, siblings, friends, of childhood, and, ultimately, of our own health and life. Some are crushed by loss, but others, most of us, manage to carry on. What provides that power, that resilience?
The Secret Life of Bees is not a novel that poses simplistic answers to such questions or offers an obvious “moral,” which is to say, it is well-written. However, the story of Lily Owens shows by example certain kinds of consolation, even, one could say, transcendence. One form is community. Lily was able, despite the obstacle of racism–she is, after all, lily white–to become invited invited into a “sisterhood” that came to include her and Rosaleen as well, through an inclusive principle that bridges the moats of race and kinship. A second kind of transcendence is religious: the ecstatic mystical practice of the black madonna into which she is initiated. A third kind of transcendence is growing up, passing the rites of initiation and being accepted as someone on the way to adulthood. Fourth, there is the consecration of memory, as symbolized by the rock wall with clippings stuffed into the cracks (reminiscent of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem) that is tended by the doomed sister, June, and the suicide note and last testament June left behind. A final kind of transcendence is Lily’s immersion in the truth about her background, her mother and her being: an icy bath for her, but bracing, leading to a deeper and tougher understanding.
Some consider this a “chick novel” that would by implication be of limited interest to guys. I disagree. Although a man, I had no trouble to identify with the heroine’s search. Her quest has many elements of an epic: escape, danger, heroism, death, recognition, redemption. If, as John Cheever wrote in one of his letters, “The first test of any aesthetic is interest,” Kidd meets that hurdle. If anything, I am struck by the universality of this author’s story-telling.
About the author: Andrew Szabo is founder and CEO of MindBodyForce.com. Comments: please contact Editor@MindBodyForce.com. Copyright 2013 MindBodyForce.com.