Instaread Summary of The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Five out of five stars
Lily Owens is a 14-year-old white girl that runs away from the home maintained by her father in Sylvan, South Carolina. It is 1964, so there is a great deal of racial tension with the looming prospect of significant change in the social structure from segregation to something as yet unknown. Lily’s father is depicted as being abusive, Lily killed her mother in a gun accident when she was only four, so she has few memories of her.
When bees swarm in Lily’s room, her black female caretaker Rosaleen calls it a harbinger of death. Lily captures some and then releases them, a symbolic act that gives her the incentive to run away. When Rosaleen goes to town to register to vote, Lily goes with her and they are accosted by three racist white men. Rosaleen is arrested and then beaten to the point of having to be hospitalized. Lily manages to get her out and they flee, eventually ending up at a house run by a set of black female sisters that keep bees. One of the three sisters has serious mental problems.
Lily and Rosaleen stay there and another character is a black teen male called Zach. He helps with the beekeeping and becomes friends with Lily. There is some spark of romantic tension between them, but they understand the dangers of mixed-race relationships in the south at that time.
From this summary, it is clear that the stage is set for some dramatic events regarding the breaking of the segregationist color barriers. This was a time when black men that paid any attention to white women were beat up and sometimes killed. Lynching by a white mob was something that black men had to always be concerned about. Yet, little is made of the relationship between Zach and Lily. There is more of a focus on the mental issues aspect of the story.
For this reason, while the summary gives the reader a good idea as to the plot of the novel, it is also clear that the book itself simply avoids what would have been the primary issue in the plot, a relationship between a black male and a white female. While there is racially based violence in the book, the most significant issues are bypassed. This is mentioned in the “themes” section at the end of the summary.
“Large swaths of the story, however, fail to engage the topic of race insofar as they ignore it.”
In a story set in South Carolina in 1964 that involves a white girl living with a black family, not dealing with this is a fatal flaw in the novel. It is something that the main characters would have faced every day.