Thursday, May 16, 2019

The tragic life of May Boatwright and other tidbits from The Secret Life of Bees


At night, the bees circle Lily Owen's room like airplanes in a holding pattern above a busy airport, their wings shiny bits of glitter in the darkness. During the day, she hears them tunnel endlessly inside her bedroom walls. Fascinated by their industriousness and behavior, she watches and listens with both fascination and delight.

So begins The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. The story goes on when 14-year-old Lily runs away from her abusive father. She's accompanied by her black nanny Rosaleen, who has just been assaulted by racist white men incensed by the escalating Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Looking for work and lodging, they ultimately arrive at the home of the Boatwright sisters, well-to-do beekeepers who operate a successful honey business despite being African Americans in the South. 

This book, the author's first novel, introduces us to both memorable characters and the strengths and frailties of human behavior, as do many other stories (including our own).

Let's consider May, the Boatwright sister named for this month. One of the so-called Calendar Sisters, she, June, and August live comfortably on income from the family honey business. Born a twin with sister April, May is the most fragile of the girls. Still despondent years after April's suicide in her mid-teens, she keeps a record of all the incidents that distress her, writing them on bits of paper and stuffing them into the rock wailing wall she builds along the edge of the driveway. Any emotional upset sends her into a tailspin until the final event that drives her to follow her twin in death. 

June, ardently pursued by love-interest Neil, refuses to marry. More of an activist than her sisters, she clearly expresses her displeasure about the intrusion of 14-year-old Lily, a white girl, and her nanny, into their lives. The development of June's character and her evolution into the woman she really is in her heart add depth and power to the story.

August Boatwright displays no prejudice against the teenager and even teaches her the finer points of beekeeping. Brilliantly portrayed in the movie by Queen Latifah, August embodies dignity, modesty, and a stunning lack of racism, especially considering the area and time in which she lives. Even-tempered and soft-spoken, she leads her family of sisters and young Lily with a strong but loving hand and even invites Rosaleen to take over the room vacated by May's death.

Is this a true story? Not likely. Is it a story of hope? Absolutely. Does it accurately depict some of the best and worst of human behavior? Yes. The book's message, for me at least, is that skin color does not make one good or bad, superior or inferior, right or wrong. Attitude, words, actions, and a host of other qualities define who people are. Young children display no prejudice. However, all that happens between toddlerhood and adulthood shapes a person—or a character. Whether or not The Secret Life of Bees depicts reality as it existed in the South during the 1960s, it absolutely depicts the reality that we can be shining examples of good or glaring examples of bad, no matter what our racial or ethnic background. The characters in our stories, of course, do the same.

An interesting side point that hit home with me: My great-aunt, one of a set of twin girls born in the late 1800s, was always a sourpuss. When asked why she displayed that attitude, she replied,"How would you feel if your twin died when you were a little girl? Her sister, also named May, had died of diphtheria when the girls were five years old.

Do you have a favorite book that relates in some way to "May"?

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven and are not restricted by fiction-writing rules. However, their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and romance. You can contact her at websites: LSLaneBooks.com and DenverEditor.com.

8 comments :

  1. Thanks for reminding me of this excellent book. I loved it. The setting in South Carolina is not far from where I live, which made it even more illuminating. I didn't live here in the 60s, but it gave me a sense of time and place. Anyone who hasn't read it, should hop right out to their local library and rent it.

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    1. I agree, Polly! It's a great story about human nature and the wonderful power of love.

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  2. I really enjoyed this book as well, Linda. As for books related to May in some way, I first thought of May Sarton and her journals, all of which I need to reread one of these days. The older I get, the more I understand and enjoy them.

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    1. Isn't it interesting how our perspective changes as we get older?

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  3. I join the others in thanking you for the reminder about this terrific book. I really need to read it. :-) No books with a May connection come to mind, but I look forward to seeing the recommendations others make.

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    1. The movie is wonderful, too. As mentioned, Queen Latifah delivers a fabulous performance in the role of August Boatwright. Jennifer Hudson as the nanny Rosaleen, Alicia Keys as June Boatwright, British actress Sophie Okonedo as May Boatwright, and Dakota Fanning as Lily Owens also bring their characters to life in memorable ways. It's well worth watching in addition to reading the book.

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  4. The Secret Life of Bees is one of those books I held off on. I think it was the premise that didn't excite me. But then I finally read it and fell in love with Sue Monk Kidd's narrative voice. Just proves that sometimes a first impression can be overcome.

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  5. It has been said that we never get a second chance to make a first impression. I like what you said better: ". . . sometimes a first impression can be overcome." Thought-provoking comment, Diana. :-)

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