The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is chronicled from the vantage point of a fourteen-year-old white girl named Lily Owens, over the course of the summer of 1964. Lily introduces herself to the reader as a nerdy, aloof teen from the town of Sylvan, South Carolina, whose household has been plagued with anguish ever since her mother passed away when she was only four-years-old. To fill this void, she has her father (referred to as T. Ray) and Rosaleen, a robust black woman who serves as the home’s caregiver.
Through his actions, the reader learns that T. Ray is a terribly insensitive father, one whose fits of anger often end in abuse towards his daughter. Rosaleen, on the other hand, is incredibly attentive to Lily, although her motherly advice is not enough to abolish Lily’s longing for her departed mother. It is disclosed that Lily’s only memories of her mother, Deborah, are the few moments before her death, which Lily may have inadvertently caused.
On the day of the aforementioned incident, Lily recalls that her parents happened to be in the heat of an agruement. After that, she remembers picking up a gun that had fallen to the ground in the confusion, and an abrupt gunshot. Although the images of that day are still very hazy, Lily blames herself for the misfortune.
One day, Lily ventures into the ‘rough’ part of town with Rosaleen to escort her as she registers to vote. In the center of town, outside of a gasoline station, a band of Caucasian men taunt Rosaleen and holler racial slurs at her. Rosaleen keeps her ground and defends herself in from of the hecklers, which only further infuriates her assailants to physically assault her. The dispute ends with Rosaleen bloodied on the cement, as well as brought into custody for ‘disturbing the peace.’
When Lily returns from the police station, her and T. Ray end up in a discord regarding Lily’s mother, in which T. Ray utters that her mother intending on leaving Lily the day she passed, and could not have cared less about her daughter. Lily assures herself that these ‘plans’ her mother supposedly had to run away, are merely a tale T. Ray has conjured up to punish her.
Lily immeadiately decides that she must get away from T. Ray and break Rosaleen out of jail. After running away, Lily ends up covertly freeing Rosaleen from the Sylvan Memorial Hospital where the injuries she obtained during the fight were being treated.
Once they had gotten away, the pair hitchhike to Tiburon, South Carolina. It turns out, of the few possessions Lily has inherited from her mother, one includes a portrait of the Virgin Mary, depicted as a black woman. On this portrait, a mystery hand had scrawled the name of the very town Lily and Rosaleen are traveling towards. Lily yearns for more information about her mother and hopes that this provincial town is the answer to unearthing who her mother truly was. Shortly after their arrival in Tiburon, Lily is shockingly confronted by the visual of the Black Virgin Mary.
While stopping for lunch at the Frogmore Stew General Store, jars labeled ‘Black Madonna Honey’ catch Lily’s eye, as they are being advertised using the divine being’s likeness. Lily has finally found her first clue. After questioning the cash register, she learns that the honey is made by a colored woman named August Boatwright, straight from her bright pink home on Main Street.
The pair journey to the Boatwright home, and are greeted by August and her two sisters, May and June. Due to Lily’s natural fibbing skills and Rosaleen’s battered frame, the two are able to obtain residency with the trio. Lily bends the truth a little (okay, a lot) and tells August that she is an orphaned child traveling to Virginia to visit her aunt, with the assistance of her old housekeeper, Rosaleen. To Lily, it appears that August can see right through her lies, yet, doesn’t appear to mind.
As they become settled into their new part-time home, August assigns her guests jobs; Lily is to assist August’s honey empire, and Rosaleen is to assist May in the household chores. They both also begin partaking in the Boatwright’s religion, a hybrid faith, based upon ancient Catholic beliefs as well as modern principles. The ceremony includes bowing before a statue of the Black Madonna, whom the Boatwright’s refer to as ‘Our Lady of Chains,’ and praying. On Sundays, the Boatwright sisters hold a gathering where neighboring black women come to praise the Lady of Chains, as well as dance and sing, called the “Daughters of Mary”.
Shortly into Lily’s stay at the hotel Boatwright, she meets August’s assistant, Zach, whom Lily is, at first, afraid to get close to. This feeling does not last long, as she slowly but surely becomes enamored with Zach, his striking good looks, and captivating personality. These already confusing feelings are further complicated by the race barrier between them, as Zach is a black man. In 1964, interracial relationships were still illegal in the U.S, and participating in one would be an immense danger for both Zach and Lily.
Throughout Lily’s summer withAugust, May and June, she begins to acknowledge some of her own prejudices towards black people, and how, as she has begun to appreciate black culture and the black community, they have slowly begun to melt away. Unfortunately, this paradise does not last for long, as Zach’s is arrested for an altercation his friend Jackson had with a group of white men in front of a theater in town. Zach’s arrest ends up having severe repercussions, as when May Boatwright finds out about the news, she becomes so distraught that she commits suicide by drowning herself.
Towards the end of the book, Lily finally confronts August, with the intent to gain information about her mother. August is very forthcoming and reveals that she was at one time Deborah’ housekeeper. When Deborah became depressed and dissatisfied with T. Ray, and dissatisfied with Sylvan, she found refuge with August in Tiburon. On the day of her passing, she was planning on bringing Lily back to the Boatwrights with her, but unfortunately, never got the chance to.
Slowly but surely, Lily begins to accept the decisions her mother and father have made, and forgive them for their flaws. Towards the end of the summer, the Boatwright home receives a visit from an angry T. Ray, who has tracked Lily down, and demands that she be returned to his care. Lily confesses to her father how sorry she is for leaving him, but admits that she cannot return.
This news infuriates an already temperamental T. Ray, inducing him to storm out of the house. As he is about to pull out of the driveway, Lily asks her father if, on that day, she truly killed her mother. T. Ray confirms that although she did not mean it, Lily’s hands on the trigger ultimately resulted in her mother’s death. Although some wounds will never heal, fortunately for Lily, she now has many mothers; in the Boatwrights, and in the Virgin Mary.
For my summer reading artwork, I chose to depict my interpretation of the ‘Black Virgin Mary’ from The Secret Life of Bees. The unique depiction of a religous figure, universally regarded as white, is integral to the theme of this book; it encompasses the book’s tone towards colorism, feminity, and rebellion, as well as Lily’s search for a maternal figure in her life. The Black Mary teaches Lily to learn from her suffering, and by teaching Lily to grieve, she also teaches her how to celebrate all there is to be thankful for.
The Madonna is also very applicable to conversations in a modern day America, regarding issues such as representation and diversity, which is why I felt so strongly compelled to depict her in my own style more so than ever. In order for us as a society to relearn our ingrained prejudices, and stir change, we must summon the power of transformation that Lily found within the Mary, and trust that we have so much to learn from the moments we would rather forget.