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The Secret Life of Bees    by Sue Monk Kidd order for
Secret Life of Bees
by Sue Monk Kidd
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD
* * *   Reviewed by Marian Powell

The year is 1964 and the Civil Rights Movement is gaining momentum. One hot summer day, fourteen year old Lily Owens sees the woman who raised her, her mammy Rosaleen, beaten and jailed for attempting to register to vote. Angry at Lily for wanting to help Rosaleen, her father shouts at her that her mother had never loved her and had run off and left her when she was four.

There had always been a horrifying mystery about the death of Lily's mother. Lily reacted by loving Rosaleen and creating a fantasy image of her mother. Now, faced with the loss of both mothers, she reacts with great daring. She works out a way to help Rosaleen escape, and the two of them take to the road. Their goal is a town whose name Lily has seen on an image of a black Madonna, and she knows somehow that it is connected to her mother. Lily is a wonderful heroine - resourceful, loving, angry, confused, easily hurt; in short, a typical adolescent. The reader is with her every step of the way. When she is wrong, you want to cry out a warning to her. Mostly you desperately want things to work out for her and Rosaleen.

By Chapter Four, they have found a place to stay with a strange trio of sisters who keep bees. We now learn the significance of the unusual title. Every chapter begins with a quote on beekeeping such as 'A queenless colony is a pitiful and melancholy community ... but introduce a new queen and the most extravagant change takes place.' In a sense that quote sums up the book. When the four-year-old Lily lost her mother she became like a hive without a queen. Now in the summer of her fourteenth year, she is searching for her mother. She finds not only answers, but new mothers and a place in the world, and we see extravagant changes taking place within her.

Meanwhile, the world is changing. Voter registration comes to the town where they are staying, and Rosaleen has to decide whether to risk registering. And Lily learns more than she ever wanted to know about the injustices of the world and the truth about her parents. If the book stopped there, it would be an angry, unsatisfying story. Wisely, it moves on. It is not enough for Lily to learn the truth, she must learn the truth of her own heart and, most of all, she must decide between a life of bitterness and anger or a life of love, compassion and forgiveness for the frailties of the adults in her world.

The Secret Life of Bees is a beautiful little story, well worth reading.

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