There's a sweet new voice in the world of Southern fiction, and it would be wise to listen. Known primarily for her books about spirituality (The Dance of the Dissident Daughter), Sue Monk Kidd now offers us her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees. But in her first work of fiction, Kidd does not stray far from her interest in the interior life. More than the coming-of-age story of Kidd's endearing heroine, Lily Owens, The Secret Life of Bees is the story of a soul's journey, its evolution and its slow awakening to life's great mystery.
"I think of it as something deeper and more profound happening to [Lily] at the level of soul, and I wanted her to have a real transformation and a real awakening . . . to this other realm," Kidd says during a recent call to her home in Charleston, South Carolina.
But the path toward enlightenment is not always an easy one. As a young child, Lily's life was changed forever by one tragic event -- the death of her mother. When we meet her as an adolescent, she is trying to come to terms with this loss, and with her relationship with her cruel father, T. Ray. Life on their South Carolina peach farm might be too bleak to bear if not for the feisty Rosaleen, Lily's "stand-in mother" who works for the family. Kidd writes beautifully of their relationship, its subtle workings and its fierce love.
"The yearning for home and mother, which is what drives Lily, is deeply embedded in all of us," says Kidd. "The symbolic layer of the novel for me was this longing that is in every human soul for the mother. The mother within, the archetypal mother, the divine mother, whatever you want to call that, it is in us, and we recognize it when we see it in another story, and it resonates in us. And home -- the deepest calling we have is to come home to ourselves. And so those things were operating in my mind when I was trying to write Lily's story. Mostly, I have to say, I wasn't thinking about all that; it was sort of in the background. I wasn't trying to write symbolically, and I wasn't trying to write about these archetypes and symbols, I was just trying to tell a really good story." And at that she succeeds. The Secret Life is Southern storytelling at its finest, but the layers of this story run deep.
Ironically, Lily's journey home begins when she leaves the peach farm. The opportunity comes when Rosaleen takes a stand against some racists in town and is beaten and jailed; Lily then knows that it's time for them to fly. Led by Lily's search for clues about her mother's past, and guided by a picture of a Black Madonna her mother left behind, they make their way to Tiburon, South Carolina. It is there that Lily and Rosaleen meet three sisters who welcome them into their world of bee-keeping and their own brand of spirituality centered around a Black Madonna. And it is there, among these bee-keeping sisters, that Lily embarks on a mystical journey into the world of bees and the sacred feminine.
The symbol of the bee and of the Black Madonna are perfectly wedded to one another, yet Kidd says that she didn't know any of the symbolism of bees before writing The Secret Life or about the amazing connections to the Virgin Mary. Somehow the two just coalesced. "I think we have to trust that choreographer inside of the writer who does offer up these gems and images at times. And we don't know how rich and layered they really are." When she began her research, she thought, "I can't believe it! Here we go." Upon discovering that Mary was often referred to as the queen bee and thought of as the bee hive, Kidd says, "I was so floored." She adds, "Bees and honeymaking lend themselves to ideas of change and transformation. And they also sting, so you've got to have that side of it."
Kidd's research included spending some time with beekeepers. Her hours in the honeyhouse and at the hives were invaluable. "Some of those scenes where Lily is experiencing that rush of feeling and emotion when the bees come swirling out of their hives, I could never have gotten that from a book. The fear and delight of all that and the sounds of it. . . . The way your feet stick to the floor in a honeyhouse . . . The senses are alive in all of that experience." Kidd's vivid prose makes The Secret Life a sensual experience for the reader, too.
Kidd was also inspired by a visit to a Trappist monastery in South Carolina where she came upon an unusual statue of Mary, unusual in that it was a ship's masthead that had made its way to the abbey from the shores of a distant island. "The day that I discovered her, I was totally captivated by . . . the powerful imagery of this masthead Mary that was surfacing from the deep, washing up from the deep, onto the shores of consciousness so to speak, and here is the feminine, returning. And I just could not get over that."
It seems the time was right for Kidd to make the jump from memoir to fiction, and indeed this novel feels inspired. Kidd says the work was a challenge, but one she'd always hoped to meet. "In fact, when I first came to the idea that I would pursue a career as a writer I wanted to write fiction. But things didn't work that way for me. . . . Maya Angelou said [to be a writer of fiction] you have to have something to say and you have to have the means or the ability to say it, and then you have to have the courage to say it at all. And I don't think I had enough of all three of those . . . when I was in my late 20s and early 30s."
The Secret Life makes clear that Kidd does possess all the elements that make the alchemy of storytelling possible. She adds to that mix humor and an understanding of human relationships, and the end result is something quite extraordinary. "Sometimes you just get a gift from your own unconscious or from somewhere," the author muses. The Secret Life of Bees is certainly a gift to Kidd's readers, one that both entertains and satisfies the soul.
Katherine H. Wyrick lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.