The Secret Life of Bees- Reading Group Guide
August said, “Listen to me now, Lily. I’m going to tell you something I want you always to remember, all right?”
Her face had grown serious. Intent. Her eyes did not blink.
“All right,” I said, and I felt something electric slide down my spine.
“Our Lady is not some magical being out there somewhere, like a fairy godmother. She’s not the statue in the parlor. She’s something inside of you. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
“Our Lady is inside me,” I repeated, not sure I did.
“You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside.”
Set in the American South in 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act and intensifying racial unrest, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees is a powerful story of coming-of-age, of the ability of love to transform our lives, and the often unacknowledged longing for the universal feminine divine. Addressing the wounds of loss, betrayal, and the scarcity of love, Kidd demonstrates the power of women coming together to heal those wounds, to mother each other and themselves, and to create a sanctuary of true family and home.
Isolated on a South Carolina peach farm with a neglectful and harsh father, fourteen-year-old Lily Owens has spent much of her life longing for her mother, Deborah, who died amid mysterious circumstances when Lily was four years old. To make matters worse, her father, T. Ray, tells Lily that she accidentally killed her mother.
Lily is raised by Rosaleen, her proud and outspoken African-American nanny. When Rosaleen attempts to exercise her newly won right to vote, she is attacked by the three worst racists in town and is thrown into jail. Lily is determined to save Rosaleen and finally escape her own father as well. Seizing the moment, she springs Rosaleen from jail, and the two set out across South Carolina in search of a new life.
Their destination is Tiburon, South Carolina—a town they know nothing about except that in a box of Lily’s mother’s belongings there is a cryptic picture of a black Virgin Mary with the words “Tiburon, South Carolina” written on the back. There they are taken in by three black beekeeping sisters who worship the Black Madonna. It is here, surrounded by the strength of the Madonna, the hum of bees, and a circle of wise and colorful women, that Lily makes her passage to wholeness and a new life.
Captured by the voice of this Southern adolescent, one becomes enveloped in the hot South Carolina summer and one of most tumultuous times the country has ever seen. A story of mothers lost and found, love, conviction, and forgiveness, The Secret Life of Bees boldly explores life’s wounds and reveals the deeper meaning of home and the redemptive simplicity of “choosing what matters.”
In the end, though she cannot find the mother she lost, Lily discovers and comes to terms with her mother’s past, finds a hive of new mothers, and falls in love with the great universal mother.
A Conversation with Sue Monk Kidd
Q. The novel is set in South Carolina in 1964. Did you experience the South in the 1960s?
In 1964 I was an adolescent growing up in a tiny town tucked in the pinelands and red fields of South Georgia, a place my family has lived for at least two hundred years, residing on the same plot of land my great-great-grandparents settled. The South I knew in the early sixties was a world of paradoxes. There was segregation and the worst injustices, and at the same time I was surrounded by an endearing, Mayberryesque life. I could wander into the drugstore and charge a cherry Coca-Cola to my father, or into the Empire Mercantile and charge a pair of cheerleader socks to my mother, and before I got home my mother would know what size Coke I’d drunk and what color socks I’d bought. It was an idyllic, cloistered, small-town world of church socials, high school football games, and private “manners lessons” at my grandmother’s. Yet despite the African-American women who prominently populated the world of my childhood, there were enormous racial divides. I vividly remember the summer of 1964 with its voter registration drives, boiling racial tensions, and the erupting awareness of the cruelty of racism. I was never the same after that summer. I was left littered with memories I could not digest. I think I knew even back then that one day I would have to find a kind of redemption for them through writing. When I began writing The Secret Life of Bees, I set it during the summer of 1964 against a civil rights backdrop. It would have been impossible for me to do otherwise.
Q. What parts of The Secret Life of Bees were drawn from your own life experience?
Once, after I gave a reading of the scene where T. Ray makes Lily kneel on grits, someone in the audience asked if my father had ever made me kneel on grits. She couldn’t imagine, she said, anyone making that up! I explained that not only had I never knelt on grits, or even heard of kneeling on grits before it popped into my head while writing the novel, but that T. Ray is the exact opposite of my father. I conjured most of the novel straight out of my imagination, inventing from scratch, yet bits and pieces of my life inevitably found their way into the story. Like charm school. Lily wanted to go, believing it was her ticket to popularity. As an adolescent, I went to charm school, where I learned to pour tea and relate to boys, which, as I recall, meant giving them the pickle jar to unscrew, whether it was too hard for me or not. And there is the fact that Lily and I both wanted to be writers, rolled our hair on grape juice cans, refused to eat grits, and created model fallout shelters for our seventh-grade science projects. We also both had nannies, but otherwise Lily and I are more different than alike.
My favorite piece of personal history that turned up in the novel is the honeybees that lived in a wall of our house when I was growing up. We lived in a big country house in Georgia, where bees lived for many years inside the wall of a guest bedroom, squeezing through the cracks to fly about the house. I remember my mother cleaning up puddles of honey that seeped out, and the unearthly sound of bee hum vibrating through the house. The whole idea for the novel began one evening when my husband reminded me that the first time he’d visited my home to meet my parents, he’d awakened in amazement to find bees flying about the room. After he told that story, I began to imagine a girl lying in bed while bees poured through cracks in her bedroom walls and flew around the room.
I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I began asking myself: Who is this girl? What is the desire of her heart? That anonymous girl became Lily Melissa Owens, lying there, yearning for her mother.
Q. Are any of the characters modeled on people you know?
I’m inclined to say that no character in the novel is modeled on a real person, but nothing is ever that simple, is it? As I wrote about Rosaleen, I could hear my own nanny’s voice in my head. She had a colorful way with words, and some of her sayings found their way into Rosaleen’s mouth. For instance my nanny used to say that if you put her husband’s brain into a bird, the bird would fly backward. You may recall that Rosaleen said exactly the same thing about her husband. Like Rosaleen, my nanny was also a connoisseur of snuff. She carried around a snuff cup and had a distinct manner of spitting it that Rosaleen inherited. Other than a few borrowed traits and sayings, however, the two of them weren’t that much alike.
While I borrowed some trivial details from my own adolescence and gave them to Lily, she was essentially her own unique creation, just as T. Ray, Deborah, Zach, Clayton, and Neil were. All of them sprang to life the same way—conjured from anonymity. As for August, May, June, and the Daughters of Mary, I’m sure I drew on amorphous memories of growing up around a lot of wonderful Southern, African-American women. As a child, I loved to listen to their stories. But I wasn’t thinking of any particular one of them as I wrote. The inspiration for August came mostly from a vision I carry inside, of feminine wisdom, compassion, and strength. I just kept trying to imagine the woman I would’ve wanted to find if I’d been in Lily’s complicated situation.
Q. In the past you have written books of memoir. Would you describe the transition you made from writing nonfiction to fiction? Will you write another nonfiction book in the future?
When I began writing at the age of thirty, my dream was to write fiction, but I was diverted from that almost before I started.
I became enticed by the notion of writing memoir. For over a decade I was compelled by the idea of turning my own life into narratives. My books The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and When the Heart Waits were narratives of my spiritual experience.
I think many people need, even require, a narrative version of their life. I seem to be one of them. Writing memoir is, in some ways, a work of wholeness.
I thought I would go on writing only nonfiction the rest of my life. Ah, but never underestimate the power of a dismissed dream.
I think there must be a place inside of us where dreams go and wait their turn. In the early nineties, my old dream of writing fiction resurfaced. To be honest, initially I was both compelled and repelled by its unexpected return. Compelled because it was a genuine impulse from deep within and had a lot of passion attached to it. Repelled because I was, to put it bluntly, afraid I couldn’t do it. The dilemma forced me to come to terms with my fear.
I took on the role of apprentice fiction writer. I read voluminous amounts of literary fiction and set about studying the craft of fiction writing. More important, I practiced—writing short stories and rewriting them. Now, of course, I can’t imagine my life apart from writing fiction. Will I, then, write another book of memoir? Oh, undoubtedly. I still have a need to create a narrative of my life. To keep writing it until I see how it turns out.
Q. What was the process of writing the novel? How long did it take to complete it?
The novel began as a short story in 1993. At the time I wrote it, I wanted to develop the story into a novel, but I’d only just begun to write fiction, and felt I needed more time as an apprentice before taking on a novel. I put the story aside. Years later I was invited to read my fiction at the National Arts Club in New York. I dug out my short story, “The Secret Life of Bees.” After the reading, I was again filled with the desire to turn it into a novel. I still didn’t feel ready, but I figured I might never feel ready, and meanwhile I wasn’t getting any younger.
It took me a little over three years to complete the novel. The process of writing it was a constant balancing act between what writing teacher Leon Surmelian referred to as “measure and madness.” He suggested that writing fiction should be a blend of these two things. That struck me as exactly true. On one hand, I relied on some very meticulous “measures,” such as character studies, scene diagrams, layouts of the pink house and the honey house. I had a big notebook where I worked out the underlying structure of the book. I relied more heavily, however, on trying to conjure “madness,” which I think of as an inexplicable and infectious magic that somehow flows into the work. Before I started the novel, I created a collage of images that vividly caught my attention. They included a pink house, a trio of African-American women, and a wailing wall. I propped the collage on my desk with no idea how, or even whether, these things would turn up in the novel. Inducing “madness” also meant that I often left my desk to sit on the dock overlooking the tidal creek behind our house and engage in a stream of reverie about the story. I considered this earnest work.
Q. How does having a sisterhood of women make a difference? Have you experienced such a community?
Isak Dinesen, who wrote Out of Africa, once said, “All sorrows can be borne if we put them in a story or tell a story about them.” Ever since I first read that line, I’ve carried it with me. When women bond together in a community in such a way that “sisterhood” is created, it gives them an accepting and intimate forum to tell their stories and have them heard and validated by others. The community not only helps to heal their circumstance, but encourages them to grow into their larger destiny. This is what happened to Lily. She found a sanctuary of women where she could tell her story, and have it heard and validated—an act that allowed her not only to bear her sorrow but transform it.
I have been part of several communities of women over the years. Each of them was created simply because we wanted a place to tell our deepest stories. In every case we found that there is a way of being together that sustains us, and now and then, if we are lucky, returns us to ourselves.
Q. Where did your interest in Black Madonnas come from? Are there actual Black Madonnas in the world? If so, what is the story behind them? How did a Black Madonna end up in your novel?
For a number years I studied archetypal feminine images of the divine and grew fascinated with how the Virgin Mary has functioned as a Divine Mother for millions of people across the centuries. It was during this period that I inadvertently stumbled upon an array of mysterious black-skinned Madonnas. They captivated me immediately, and I began to explore their history, mythology, and spiritual significance.
Approximately four hundred to five hundred of these ancient Madonnas still exist, most in Europe. They are among the oldest Madonna images in the world, and their blackness is purportedly not related to race or ethnic origins, but has to do with obscure symbolic meanings and connections to earlier goddesses. I traveled to Europe to see some of the Black Madonnas and found them to be images of startling strength and authority. Their stories reveal rebellious, even defiant sides. Black Madonnas in Poland and Central America have been the rallying images for oppressed peoples struggling against persecution.
I decided the Black Madonna had to make an appearance in my novel. I had no idea, though, what a starring role she would end up with. I thought she would be a small statue, sitting quietly in the background of the story. Then I visited a Trappist monastery, where I came upon a statue of a woman that had once been the masthead of a ship. It was deeply scarred and didn’t look particularly religious. I asked a young monk about it. He told me she’d washed up on the shores on a Caribbean island and wound up in an antique shop. She wasn’t really the Virgin Mary but was purchased and consecrated as Mary. I fell in love with the masthead Mary. I imagined a masthead Black Madonna in the pink house. I pictured fabulous black women in grand hats dancing around her, coming to touch their hands to her heart. I understood in that moment that here was Lily’s mother, a powerful symbolic essence that could take up residence inside of her and become catalytic in her transformation. Just like that, the Black Madonna became a full-blown character in the novel.
Q. Did you know anything about bees and beekeeping before you wrote the novel? How did you learn so much about bees?
I knew that bees could live inside the wall of a bedroom in your house. Other than that, I didn’t know much at all. I began my bee education by reading lots of books. There’s a mystique about bees, a kind of spell they weave over you, and I fell completely under it. I read bee lore and legend that went back to ancient times. I discovered bees were considered a symbol of the soul, of death and rebirth. I will never forget coming upon medieval references which associated the Virgin Mary with the queen bee. I’d been thinking of her as the queen bee of my little hive of women in the pink house, thinking that was very original, and they’d already come up with that five hundred years ago!
Books couldn’t tell me everything I needed to know, so I visited an apiary in South Carolina. Inside the honey house, I sketched all the honey-making equipment, trying to get a handle on how they worked. There seemed to be thin veneer of honey everywhere, and my shoes stuck slightly to the floor when I walked, something I could never have learned from a book. When the beekeepers took me out to the hives, I was unprepared for the rush of fear and relish I experienced when the lid on the hive was lifted. I became lost in a whirling cloud of bees. So many, I could hardly see. The scent of honey drifted up, bee hum swelled, and the smoke meant to calm the bees rose in plumes all around us. Beekeeping, I discovered, is a thoroughly sensual and courageous business. I got through my bee education without a single sting. The first time August took Lily to the hives, she told her, “Don’t be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don’t be an idiot; wear long sleeves and long pants.”
Q. Did you know how the novel would end when you began it? Did you consider having T. Ray change his ways by the end, beg for Lily’s forgiveness, and admit that he shot Deborah?
When I began the novel, not only did I have no idea of the ending, but I was clueless about the middle. My idea extended only as far as Lily springing Rosaleen free and the two of them running away to Tiburon. I didn’t know where they would end up once they got there. At that point the beekeeping Boatwright sisters had not materialized. After I wrote the scene where Lily and Rosaleen walk into Tiburon, I was stuck. I happened to flip through a book where I came upon a quote by Eudora Welty: “People give pain, are callous and insensitive, empty and cruel…but place heals the hurt, soothes the outrage, fills the terrible vacuum that these human beings make.” It struck me clearly that I needed to create a place that would do that for Lily. I glanced over at my collage, at the trio of African-American women, and it simply dropped into my head—Lily would find sanctuary in the home of three black beekeeping sisters. As I neared the conclusion, I knew some aspects of the ending but not all of them. I knew that it would not be in T. Ray’s character to change his ways, beg Lily’s forgiveness, and admit shooting Deborah. There was never a possibility in my mind of that happening. I knew from the beginning that Lily was actually the one responsible for her mother’s death. It was a tragic thing, but it made her situation, her emotional life, more complex and layered. And it made her journey of healing so much more essential and powerful. No, the part I hadn’t figured out was where Lily would end up. Would she go back to the peach farm with T. Ray? Would she stay at the pink house? Initially, I couldn’t grasp how to work it out so that she would get to stay. I was influenced, too, by my impression (right or wrong) that “happy endings” in literary novels were often sneered at. I decided she would have to go back to the peach farm with T. Ray. Then one night I had a dream in which August came to me, complaining about my idea for an ending. “You must let Lily stay with her ‘mothers,'” she told me. I woke a little awed and a lot relieved. I knew immediately that I would take August’s advice. It was what I’d really wanted all along.
Q. Do you have plans to follow this novel with a sequel? What are you working on now?
This might sound peculiar, but after I finished the novel, I actually felt homesick for the pink house. I missed being with Lily, August, May, June, Rosaleen, and the Daughters of Mary. I moped around for a couple of weeks as if all my friends had moved away.
I was sure that I would never revisit the story. I didn’t want to risk tampering with the world I’d created. I wanted to freeze Lily at this moment of her life, fourteen forever, living in the pink house. Then I went on book tour, and the most frequently asked question that I got from readers was: Will you write a sequel? I was surprised by how strongly readers wanted to know what would happen to the characters. I started off saying that a sequel was really not a possibility. Still the question kept coming, along with disappointed looks when I gave my answer. I began saying, well okay, it’s not likely, but I’ll think about it. And that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I’m thinking.
Right now I’m working on a second novel set in the Low Country of South Carolina. All I can say is that I’m immersed once again with characters, in a place apart, one that I will undoubtedly miss one day the way I missed the pink house.
Discussion Questions for the Reader
1. Were you surprised to learn that T. Ray used to be different, that once he truly loved Deborah? How do you think Deborah’s leaving affected him? Did it shed any light on why T. Ray was so cruel and abusive to Lily?
2. Had you ever heard of “kneeling on grits”? What qualities did Lily have that allowed her to survive, endure, and eventually thrive, despite T. Ray?
3. Who is the queen bee in this story?
4. Lily’s relationship to her dead mother was complex, ranging from guilt to idealization, to hatred, to acceptance. What happens to a daughter when she discovers her mother once abandoned her? Is Lily right—would people generally rather die than forgive? Was it harder for Lily to forgive her mother or herself?
5. Lily grew up without her mother, but in the end she finds a house full of them. Have you ever had a mother figure in your life who wasn’t your true mother? Have you ever had to leave home to find home?
6. What compelled Rosaleen to spit on the three men’s shoes? What does it take for a person to stand up with conviction against brutalizing injustice? What did you like best about Rosaleen?
7. Had you ever heard of the Black Madonna? What do you think of the story surrounding the Black Madonna in the novel? How would the story be different if it had been a picture of a white Virgin Mary? Do you know women whose lives have been deepened or enriched by a connection to an empowering Divine Mother?
8. Why is it important that women come together? What did you think of the “Calendar Sisters” and the Daughters of Mary? How did being in the company of this circle of females transform Lily?
9. May built a wailing wall to help her come to terms with the pain she felt. Even though we don’t have May’s condition, do we also need “rituals,” like wailing walls, to help us deal with our grief and suffering?
10. How would you describe Lily and Zach’s relationship? What drew them together? Did you root for them to be together?
11. Project into the future. Does Lily ever see her father again? Does she become a beekeeper? A writer? What happens to Rosaleen? What happens to Lily and Zach? Who would Zach be today?
The 10th Anniversary Edition of The Secret Life of Bees
Introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition of The Secret Life of Bees
While writing The Secret Life of Bees, I kept a quotation framed on my desk, some words by Leo Tolstoy:
If I were told that what I should write would be read in twenty years’ time by those who are now children and that they would laugh and cry over it and love life, I would devote all my own life and all my energies to it.
During the three and a half years I worked on the novel, those lines from the Introduction to Anna Karenina stared me in the face. They were there to challenge me with a large and inspiring vision. I assure you, however, it never crossed my mind that what I was writing might actually be read in ten years’ time, much less twenty.
Yet here we are at the tenth anniversary of The Secret Life of Bees, and the story of Lily Owens is still being read. Ironically, some readers are fourteen- year-olds who were four when the novel came out. Or as the quotation on my desk put it, readers who were then children.
The most frequent question I’ve been asked about the novel in the last ten years goes something like this: “Did you ever expect The Secret Life of Bees would find the kind of reception it did?” I ran out of ways to say, “Of course not.”
When Bees was first published in January 2002, I had three pragmatic hopes for the novel: first, that the book would find a modicum of respect in the literary world; second, that my publisher had not been overly optimistic in commissioning a first printing of 68,000 copies; and third, that my family and friends, who might possibly number as many as 500, if I really stretched it, would read my book along with 67,500 other people who were not related to me and who had no idea who I was.
In the weeks leading up to the novel’s publication, a few gallant, if not utterly biased people, such as my own husband and children stated that they thought the book could be a big success. I loved them for saying so. Then I asked them to please come back to earth. Bees was a debut novel by an unknown author, and there were thousands of other novels out there to read. It seemed wildly implausible, not to mention presumptuous, to imagine anything beyond the pragmatic hopes I had adopted. Besides, since when was it circumspect to wish for 68,000 readers?
On publication day, I embarked on my first book tour which took me to twenty- four cities. I set out like the uninitiated, with too many outfits, with things for every situation and emergency. I had a flashlight in case the hotel electricity went out and there were too many of those little boxes of raisins in my purse. I told myself I would be content with what is and not ask what else.
Early on, some of the events drew so few people they might have been canceled were it not for store employees who rallied from behind the counters to fill seats. I’d admonished myself not to ask what else, but I wouldn’t have minded if the audiences grew to include actual customers. They did, naturally, and to my surprise, a quaint and vintage form of social networking called Word-of-Mouth kicked in. As you know, this mode is much slower than Electronic Virus but, like the Pony Express, very reliable. By the end of the year, my pragmatic hopes had been realized.
When the paperback was published in January 2003, I arrived at a bookstore in Connecticut only to be informed that my talk and signing would have to be held across the street at the high school gymnasium. The store was sorry for the last minute switch, an employee explained, as she scurried about, but given the circumstances, they were doing the best they could. What circumstances? I crossed the street, wondering what sort of glitch had necessitated this impromptu store evacuation. Plumbing? Electrical? I was that clueless—or, as I would like to claim, unassuming. The “glitch” was that six hundred people had unexpectedly shown up. I can still picture them all, sitting on the bleachers, and I feel the same incredulous wonder now as I did then.
Despite incidents like these, I didn’t quite grasp the growing reach of Bees’ readership until one evening while watching Jeopardy! on television. Again, whether my ignorance was due to greenness or some certifiably odd resistance is up for debate. The contestant said, “I’ll take Women Writers for six hundred.” What popped on the screen was: “Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel is about these insects.” I blinked at the television. Finally, I came to life and shouted, “What are bees?” Fortunately, the contestant did not need my help.
Success of any kind or amount is a funny thing. It can stun and flummox a person almost as easily as it can thrill and gratify. My most important lesson regarding success arrived just two weeks after Bees was first published. I was signing copies of the novel in a bookstore when an exuberant woman rushed up to me and exclaimed, “I love your novel! I think it is the book of the year.” This precipitated a small surge of vanity, and perhaps I beamed a little too glaringly, because the woman quickly followed her accolade with a line that has remained vividly with me for this entire decade. She said, “But, of course, it is only February.”
You have no idea the perspective this gave me. The comment put everything into its proper proportion. It became clear that while the process of writing a book may depend on some blend of innate ability, craft, and determination, having written a book is all about perspective, and indeed, life itself is about perspective— seeing one’s life in its true and proper scale and measuring it correctly in relation to everything else.
I have no illusions that my vanity died a sudden death that day, but since then, somewhere in my head it is always “only February.”
The second most frequently asked question from the past decade is most likely this: How did you come up with the idea for The Secret Life of Bees?
It seems the story sprang from a mixture of imagination, memory, and errant personal threads. When I was growing up, bees lived inside a wall of our house, an entire hive- full of them— that is to say, fifty thousand or so. They lived with us, not for a summer or two, but for eighteen years. Occasionally, they squeezed through cracks in the wall and flew around. My mother, genius that she is, turned the room into a guest bedroom. The room vibrated with bee hum. At times, the whole house seemed to hum. I remember my mother cleaning up the honey that leaked from the cracks and made tiny puddles on the floor. Being a good Southern family, we normalized the situation and went on with our lives.
Over the years, I more or less forgot about the bees until one evening when my husband, Sandy, told our dinner guests about the first time he visited my home and was put in the guest bedroom. He was awakened in the middle of the night to find bees flying around the room.
His telling of this rather unique part of my family history coincided with a new desire I harbored to write fiction. At this point in my life, I had written only nonfiction—personal articles and essays and three books of memoir. Now, however, I began to picture a girl lying in bed while bees slipped through crevices in her bedroom wall and flew laps around the room. I envisioned their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and the air vibrating with the sound of z-z-z-z-z-z. The image stuck in my head. The appearance of bees in this anonymous girl’s room seemed to me like a visitation, a summons that would spin this girl’s life into a whole new orbit. It caused me to ask: Who is this girl? What does she want as she lies there, watching the bees? And what do these bees mean?
For me, those would evolve into the crucial questions a novelist must ask: Who is my character? What does my character want? And what is the symbolic core of the story?
I decided the character in my head was a fourteen-year-old, motherless girl named Lily Owens. What she wanted was her mother, along with all a mother might imply, namely love and home. And finally, I determined that the symbolism in the story, the very resolution of the story, was contained within the metaphor of the hive.
When I sat down to write the book, this was all I knew.
Other characters gradually appeared: a fierce-hearted African American woman named Rosaleen, Lily’s nanny and also her salvation; Lily’s father, whom she called T. Ray because daddy never fit him; and Lily’s mother, Deborah, who died when Lily was four, leaving behind too much pain and too many secrets.
The book had not been out very long when I discovered that some readers hold to the idea that when a novelist writes a book, she is writing surreptitiously about her own life. During the last ten years, countless strangers have consoled me on my wretched childhood.
But my childhood was not like Lily’s. Unlike her, my mother did not die when I was four. She is alive, well, and living in Georgia. At no time did she desert me. Indeed, she was once presented a Mother of the Year award. Likewise, my father is nothing like T. Ray. He, too, is alive and well in Georgia and no doubt wants me to make it abundantly clear that he never once forced me to kneel on grits, and that he is well aware Shakespeare’s first name is not Julius. I can further attest that I did not break anyone out of jail or ever run away from home.
Now, to muddy the waters: Lily and I do have similarities. We both grew up in houses with bees in the walls. We both come from tiny Southern towns, which begin with the same four letters— Lily from Sylvan, South Carolina, me from Sylvester, Georgia. Both Lily and I were adolescents during the summer of 1964, and like Lily, I was powerfully affected by the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the racial unrest that fomented during those hot, volatile months. I, too, had an African American caretaker. I, too, wanted to be a writer. We both hated grits, rolled our hair on grape juice cans, and were once told we were pretty by a woman who was legally blind. Lily and I created fallout shelter models for our seventh-grade science projects and wrote papers called “My Philosophy of Life” before either of us were old enough to have a philosophy. The both of us had a lot of black hair with cowlicks. While Lily’s life was a little like mine around the edges, at heart it was nothing like mine.
At heart, Lily is a girl wounded by a terrible loss, a terrible betrayal, and a terrible guilt, and Bees is her quest to heal them. How does she go about it? The late novelist John Gardner wrote that all fiction can be reduced to one of two plots: a stranger comes to town, or someone goes on a trip. Lily goes on a trip.
I came up with the idea of a trip long before I had any idea what the destination would be. After Lily broke Rosaleen out of jail, I had two fugitives on my hands and no idea where they were going. The writing ceased for weeks as I brooded over this dilemma. Then one night, I woke around 4:00 A.M., thinking about the problem of my two runaway characters. I padded upstairs to my study, where I picked up a collage of pictures. The collage contained twenty images I had glued together with the fanciful idea they might evoke characters or provide grist for the story. Some of the pictures had, in fact, spun narrative threads that had made their way into the book. My eyes wandered back and forth between pictures of three African American women, an uproariously pink house, a cloud of bees, and a black Mary, and suddenly, it fell in one unbroken piece into my head. My two runaways would escape to the home of three black sisters, who live in a pink house, keep bees, and revere a black Mary. This sudden revelation may have happened in part because down deep I wanted a way to write about the strength, wisdom, and bonds of women. Thus, the sisters, August, May, and June, and the women around them, whom I dubbed the Daughters of Mary.
This female world became Lily’s refuge. The pink house, the women, and the black Madonna who presides there (yes, a little like a queen bee in a hive), provide the milieu of Lily’s healing. Her transformation happens as she finds a place of love and belonging in the world. In this way, she is like all of us.
When I was writing about the inhabitants of the pink house, I was drawing on memories of growing up in the fifties and sixties around a number of African American women in Georgia. Bees is haunted by my own sense of place, and the real challenge was to write both lovingly and subversively about it. I wanted to tell the paradoxical truth, which meant exposing the charm, beauty, humor, and soulfulness of the South, as well as its tragedies, failures, cruelties, and violence.
I was never the same after the summer of 1964. I was left with images of cruelty and memories of horrific injustice that I could not digest. I think it possible that a place exists within the southern psyche and, for that matter, within the American psyche that stores collective racial wounds, and as long as these wounds exist, this place will go on offering up a stream of images bent on healing. In part, Bees grew out of a need to address my own stream of images and memories and bring some small redemption to them.
What did you think of the movie? I get this question all the time.
It was recently asked by a woman who could not bring herself to see the movie when it appeared in theaters because, as she said, she didn’t see how it could live up to the imaginings in her head. She wanted to know “from the horse’s mouth” if Hollywood had changed the book too much, and whether she should order it from Netflix or pass.
“By all means, order it,” I told her. “I can’t guarantee the movie will seem as good as the version your own imagination filmed, but it is still a wonderful movie.”
Still, I know how the woman felt. I was nervous about the movie, too.
When the script arrived at my door, I did not immediately read it. I told myself I was busy. The truth is I was nervous. I finally began reading it one night, thinking I would only peruse the opening scene. By 2:00 A.M., I had finished it all. I was a little bowled over by how good it was.
Gina Prince- Bythewood, the director and screenwriter, went on sending me the script as it evolved through various drafts, and I sent back copious notes for each one. The two of us had long, involved conversations about the characters and the story, brainstorming and conferring. I came to intimately appreciate how difficult it is to take a 302- page novel and turn it into a 106- page script.
An adaptation is not meant to be a clone of the novel; it’s the story rendered in a different artistic medium, and in order to translate it from one medium into another, changes are always needed. The changes to Bees seemed few and wise, and in Gina’s note that accompanied that first draft of the script, she had written: “Your novel was my bible.”
Early in 2008, I traveled to the movie set in tiny Watha, North Carolina, where most of the shooting took place. It was February, and it was freezing cold. The day I arrived, the rain puddles were edged in ice, and the world was winter- brown. In the movie, it was supposed to be July.
Everywhere I looked there were purposeful- looking people in headsets, a morass of lights, cameras, video monitors, sound equipment , propane heaters, and director’s chairs. I was escorted to the pinkest house I’ve ever seen and told it took three tries to get the house that particular Pepto Bismol shade. The grass had been dyed bright summer green. Gorgeous faux flowers bloomed by the front steps. The trees were wired with fake leaves. Counterfeit tomatoes ripened in the garden. As I stood outside and watched the filming of Scene 36— Lily and Rosaleen arriving at the pink house— I noticed Jennifer Hudson and Dakota Fanning wore thin cotton and short sleeves despite subfreezing temperatures. They popped ice into their mouths to keep their breaths from fogging when they said their lines. Summer had come in February.
Inside the pink house, August’s blue room existed just as I’d written it, as did the parlor— from the statue of black Mary in the corner to the crocheted doilies on the back of the sofa. The kitchen table had its bowl of bananas, the back porch its swing and wringer washer, and out back, the honey house was filled with honey- making contraptions, circa 1964. May’s wailing wall curved through the backyard, drifting off toward the woods. It was like stumbling into my imagination as a real place.
For the next several days, I watched scene after scene, beautifully filmed and acted, yet in spite of everything I have just mentioned, when I sat in the theater about to watch the movie for the first time, I felt quietly, reservedly nervous. I had no idea what I would see. I’d glibly said that handing over my novel to Hollywood had seemed like leaping out of an airplane, but sitting there waiting for the film to begin, it really did seem that way.
The parachute opened, thankfully, and the whole thing floated rather nicely to earth. As I told the woman who’d wanted it straight from the so- called horse’s mouth, it was a good film, and actually a lot of folks seemed to think so, judging by its People’s Choice Award for Best Drama. But I have to say, the tribute to the film about which I felt happiest was the Image Award it received from the NAACP for Most Outstanding Picture.
Lest, though, my perspective ever get upended by the movie glitz, I have this gem of a memory, which occurred at the Los Angeles premiere. While waiting backstage with the actors and director to participate in a press conference, I heard someone loudly summon: “Get the talent. And get Sue, too.” It was still only February.
Not long ago, after almost thirty- five years in South Carolina, my husband Sandy and I moved to a small island off the coast of Florida. It was bittersweet to leave Charleston, which had been something of a muse to me, as well as to leave the region of the country that had inspired Bees, and it would probably take a small book to reflect on the reason. The abridged version is that we wanted to distill and simplify life. In the course of moving, I came face- to- face with the stuff in our closets, drawers, cabinets, and dormers, and in particular with the contents of numerous plastic boxes that held all things Bees. I spent a week sorting through half- forgotten documents, letters, journals, and ephemerae related to the novel, reliving ten years’ worth of memories, from the strange to the wondrous. More than any other, this experience helped me answer another question that has been posed to me repeatedly over the last decade: How has your life changed as a result of The Secret Life of Bees?
Among the boxes’ contents was this from a twelve- year- old girl who’d read the novel:
Dear Ms. Kidd,
I didn’t know I could have so many feelings at once. My mother left, too. All I wanted was her to be there. Lily found a family in the last place anybody would think. That gives me hope. Thank you.
I found a proclamation making me an honorary citizen of Rhode Island, issued after Bees was chosen for the state’s read. A playbill from the stage production of Bees by American Place Theatre. A list of “Twenty- five Books to Read Before You Are Twenty- five,” compiled by First Librarian, Laura Bush, and guess what novel about insects was on there? Included in the boxes were pictures of art objects the book had inspired— whimsical sculptures of the pink house and breathtaking paintings of Black Mary, a letter from a perfect stranger asking me to visit her mother’s grave, and dozens of flyers and programs from places where I had spoken— Lincoln Center to Sam’s Club.
I came upon countless communiqués from book clubs, recounting their experiences of reading the book. There had been “Mary Day” parties galore. I gazed at photo after photo of smiling women in gargantuan Daughters of Mary hats. A mother- daughter group wrote movingly of the bonds they had rediscovered while reading the book. An all- male group visited an apiary. In Massachusetts, a group contributed bees and hives to impoverished families on the other side of the world. Quite a few book clubs re- created the food in the book, everything from honey cakes to Lily’s favorite dessert— peanuts in a bottle of Coca Cola.
A journal notation in one of the boxes recorded an encounter I’d had in Tulsa, when a group from a women’s shelter came to hear me speak. Afterward, one of the women opened her copy of the book and showed me certain sentences she’d underlined:
All those times your father treated you mean, Our Lady was the voice in you that said, “No, I will not bow down to this, I will not bow down.” . . . When you’re unsure of yourself, when you start pulling back into doubt and small living, she’s the one inside saying, “Get up from there and live like the glorious girl you are.”
The woman tried to tell me something particular about this passage, or perhaps about herself, but she kept choking up. In the end, she could only point to the lines.
I discovered a stack of academic papers written about the novel and sent to me. “The Symbolism of the River in The Secret Life of Bees.” Also, “The Symbolism of the Moon in The Secret Life of Bees”; “Gender Relations in . . .”; “The Politics of Race in . . .”; “The Journey to Womanhood in . . .” And these titles: “A Psycho- Social Analysis of Lily Owens”; “Sue Monk Kidd’s Black Madonna as a Raced and Gendered Image of the Divine.” You cannot imagine the things I learned. Apparently, Lily was involved in an Oedipal conflict. Furthermore, the beekeeping sisters were three different aspects of Lily, the same way the lion, the tin man, and the scarecrow were all aspects of Dorothy. I wish I could take credit for it, but I suspect it was some happy accident.
Over the years, I’ve heard of numerous accounts of organizations re- creating May’s “wailing wall” in the novel. They’ve been installed in therapists’ offices, schools, a hospital, a gallery, and on a farm for adults with disabilities. I plucked a letter from the box that described one such wall built by a community of homeless youth. The letter described how they brought their grief and worries to the wall and tucked them among the stones, just as May had done. And as I write this, plans are underway to build a wall like May’s on my family’s two hundred- year- old farm in Georgia in honor of my parents’ ninetieth birthdays.
As I rummaged through the decade of memorabilia, I reread a booklet created by a group of thirteen students in Botswana, aged seventeen to nineteen. Most came from impoverished backgrounds and were orphans from the ravages of HIV. They called themselves the “Bee Girls.” The booklet was sent to me by a U.S. Peace Corp volunteer, who formed the Bee Girls as part of her mission “to empower the girls of this country.” She wrote, “They get Lily. And they are the richer for it.” The booklet’s pages contained a picture of the girls, followed by their personal essays and poems about reading Bees.
The myriad reminiscences I’ve described merely skim the surface of the archival material in the plastic boxes. After delving into them, something coalesced for me— Bees had not changed me so much as its readers had.
Some years ago in Chicago, I met an executive from a well- to- do New England family who told me that initially he had not wanted to read The Secret Life of Bees, but his wife had “made him.” Curious, I asked why he had been reluctant to read the novel, to which he said, “Your character, Lily, is a girl from a small Southern town who has a rough time of it— my world could not have been more different from hers. I suppose I thought I couldn’t relate to her story.”
He then went on to say that surprisingly enough, Lily and the women in the pink house had gotten under his skin. As he put it, “I now feel more disposed to the South, to African American women, and little girls who need their mothers.”
I chose Tolstoy’s quotation as inspiration for The Secret Life of Bees because I am drawn to its assertion that a novel’s true and lasting worth is found in its ability to open the human heart. My desire will always be to write a novel that evokes empathy. I want readers to experience my story intellectually, but even more, I want them to participate emotionally in the character’s sufferings, ecstasies, yearnings, and struggles, in all the ways the characters’ lives are shattered and put together again. I want them to feel, for instance, what it’s like to be a motherless girl adrift in the world or a person facing terrible racial cruelties. The particular power of fiction is to cause readers to feel truth.
Perhaps the real story takes place not on the page, but within the readers’ minds and hearts. As Tolstoy said, for that, I would still devote all my own life and all my energies.