During my intervals as a bookseller, there were a few books whose covers really stuck in my mind. The books were consistent sellers with memorable covers, but that I for some reason never quite got round to reading.
Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees was one such title. Pale yellow—an arguably unusual colour for a book cover in and of itself—with a mix of clearly story-related images, gold-embossed bees, and a title that gave a distinct hint of mystery, it was a book I wanted to if not read, then to know what it was about.
I recalled it during my recent beekeeping courses and subsequent research. Though fiction, I figured it might give me insight into the world of bees and their complex, fascinating, super-organism ways. There were, after all, bees depicted on the cover and mentioned in the title.
The Secret Life of Bees features a young girl named Lily from America’s south who, after an accident as a young child that left her without a mother and with racial tensions coming to the fore when she’s a teenager, finds herself living with three beekeeping sisters.
From Augustine, June, and May (all of whom have month-long celebrations during the months of their namesakes) she learns that the whole world is a bee yard. She also discovers the principle of ‘bee yard etiquette’, including that you should: not be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you; not swat; wear appropriate, long-sleeved, long-panted clothing; and that if you feel angry, whistle, as anger agitates bees, but whistling calms them.
Monk Kidd (or Kidd—I’m never sure how to shorten tri-part names) has a beautiful way of viewing and expressing the world. She writes of how the bee suit veil softens the world, and how ‘knowing can be a curse on a person’s life. I’d traded a pack of lies for a pack of truth, and I didn’t know which one was heavier’.
The book’s about bees and nature, about truth and lies, about love and sorrow, and race and rights. Each chapter commences with a quote from a non-fiction beekeeping book such as:
If the queen were smarter, she would probably be hopelessly neurotic. As is, she is shy and skittish, possibly because she never leaves the hive, but spends her days confined in darkness, a kind of eternal night, perpetually in labor…He true role is less that of a queen than mother of the hive, a title often accorded to her. And yet, there this is something of a mockery because of her lack of maternal instincts or the ability to care for her young.
The book also weaves in bee history and trivia, such as how beekeepers used to drape material over their hives when there was a death in the family. It was to prevent the bees leaving, as having bees around was supposed to ensure a dead person would live again. The accompanying adage is : ‘When a bee flies, a soul will rise’. Interestingly, honey is a preservative—people used to use it to embalm bodies.
The Secret Life of Bees doesn’t include as much bee information as I’d hoped, but the story itself drew me in after an initial slow start. Each time I thought I should put the book aside for a more fact-based read, I found myself wondering what would happen to Lily and the sisters she encounters, what happened with her mother all those years ago, and whether there’d be a happy ending with her first love.
Now that I know the story, the cover befits the tale and was worth finally cracking the spine. It also inspires me to revisit a few of the other titles that caught my attention during my bookselling stints.