The Secret Life of Bees

From Roger Ebert’s October 15 review of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film, The Secret Life of Bees: a photo of Queen Latifah (beekeeper August Boatright, Jennifer Hudson (housekeeper Rosaleen Daise) and Alicia Keys (August’s cellist sister and incipient activiest June Boatright).

I’ll be seeing the film tonight when I volunteer at the Lyric. It also also stars Dakota Fanning (as Lily Owens, Rosaleen’s charge) and Sophie Okonedo (May, the disturbed sister.) Okonedo played the wife of the innkeeper Don Cheedle in Hotel Rwanda (2004), one of my favorite films.

The Secret Lives of Bees is based on Viking’s 2002 civil rights-era novel of the same name by Sue Monk Kidd (which we read in our book group.)

Monk explained in an interview at the link above,

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.

Here’s an excerpt from chapter one:

At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam.

During the day I heard them tunneling through the walls of my bedroom, sounding like a radio tuned to static in the next room, and I imagined them in there turning the walls into honeycombs, with honey seeping out for me to taste.

The bees came the summer of 1964, the summer I turned fourteen and my life went spinning off into a whole new orbit, and I mean whole new orbit. Looking back on it now, I want to say the bees were sent to me. I want to say they showed up like the angle Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary, setting events in motion I could never have guessed. I know it is presumptuous to compare my small life to hers, but I have reason to believe she wouldn’t mind; I will get to that. Right now it’s enough to say that despite everything that happened that summer, I remain tender toward the bees.

*

July 1, 1964, I lay in bed, waiting for the bees to show up, thinking of what Rosaleen had said when I told her about their nightly visitations.

“Bees swarm before death,” she’d said.

Rosaleen had worked for us since my mother died. My daddy – who I called T. Ray because “Daddy” never fit him – had pulled her out of the peach orchard, where she’d worked as one of his pickers. She had a big round face and a body that sloped out from her neck like a pup tent, and she was so black that night seemed to seep from her skin. She lived alone in a little house tucked back in the woods, not far from us, and came every day to cook, clean, and be my stand-in mother. Rosaleen had never had a child herself, so for the last ten years I’d been her pet guinea pig.

Bees swarm before death. She was full of crazy ideas that I ignored, but I lay there thinking about his one, wondering if the bees had come with my death in mind. Honestly, I wasn’t that disturbed by the idea. Every one of those bees could have descended on me like a flock of angels and stung me till I died, and it wouldn’t have been the worst thing to happen. People who think dying is the worst thing don’t know a thing about life.

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