Set in South Carolina in the 1960s, The Secret Life of Bees follows fourteen year old Lilly Owens and her black housekeeper/mother figure, Rosaleen. After some trouble in their hometown- Rosaleen gets arrested while attempting to register to vote and Lilly gets into a fight with her father about whether her deceased mother abandoned her- the two hit the road. With no real plan, Lilly leads them to Tiburon, South Carolina, a town that she believes had some connection to her mother. Once in Tiburon, the two are taken in in by the Boatwright sisters, pillars of Tiburon’s black community who own and operate a honey business.
This is essentially a coming of age novel, set in the south during the civil rights era. Lilly learns lessons about the complexity and nuance of adult emotions and life decisions, both her own and those of her parents. She is literally embedded in the black community during her time in Tiburon, so she gets to see first hand some of the discrimination and racism that Rosaleen, the Boatwrights and a newfound love interest, Zach, experience.
As I was reading this, I kept thinking that this is just an earlier version of The Help or The Green Book or American Dirt- a white protagonist or author who wants to humanize and guide us through the issues experienced by those in BIPOC communities. I don’t think the intentions are altogether bad (the author wants to show how the existence and unfairness of this discrimination) but it is disappointing that the story is written by a white author, with a white character as the center of the narrative.
Given the publication date of this novel (2003), I’m willing to give Secret Life more benefit of the doubt (I don’t think white authors were giving consideration to some of the ideas on agency above), although I do wonder how this story would be told if were written now (August Boatwright as the main character?).
Taken all together, I thought this novel was fine. The language was fine (at times it is poetic at others more just serviceable), the plot was fine (some suspension of disbelief necessary), the characters were fine (August Boatwright is almost too good to be true). It wasn’t good enough that I’m passing it on to friends and family, but I would consider reading other books read by Kidd, depending on the subject matter.