The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd
I’m sure pretty nearly everybody who’s going to read this book has already read it, but I had some thoughts I wanted to write down anyway. Spoilers ahead, for those who mind.
This is a book about the South during the Civil Rights Movement; a white girl, who has been abused (not sexually) by her father runs away with her father’s housekeeper, who is black and has been beaten to within an inch of her life because she tried to register to vote. The girl’s mother died when she was four; they run away to to town in South Carolina where three sisters raise bees. It turns out the eldest sister had raised the girl’s mother much the way the housekeeper has raised the girl herself. The father eventually catches up to them, and the sisters (and other ladies belonging to their church) guilt the man into leaving the daughter and the housekeeper (a fugitive from justice) behind. Happily ever after, the end.
There’s nothing new under the sun, so I don’t mind that the plot was stolen and patched together from other books. Shakespeare did it; why not Sue Monk Kidd? The things said by To Kill a Mockingbird, Toni Morrison’s books, and even Bastard out of Carolina are worth saying again, and Sue Monk Kidd says them well enough. What’s interesting is that the painful truths of the other books have been turned into the equivalent of a Hollywood movie that purports to be “deep” but really fits better into the “feel good” category. Terrible things happen to the characters, but not too terrible, nothing that would actually offend or shock the reading public (bad enough to empathize with, but not bad enough to destroy the characters’ souls, if you see what I mean–not bad enough to sully the characters). One of the characters dies, but it’s a melodramatic gesture. The bad white father has no redeeming characteristics. The dead mother is blamed for something earth-shattering, but forgiven within thirty pages or so, just long enough to smash a few honeyjars and stomp around a bit. The church the sisters attend is weird, but not weird enough to scare off people who go to “regular” churches. And so on.
That all having been said, I had a hard time putting the book down. I liked the movie Pretty Woman; I like The Secret Life of Bees. I just wanted to point out the popularization of this particular type of pain, how it has moved out of the realm of high literature and into fiction, how it’s become something you can just write about without having the book itself become part of issue. Probably a good thing.