“The Secret Life of Bees” is the first piece of fiction by American author Sue Monk Kidd, published in 2001. The story is set in the American South of 1964, and follows fourteen-year-old Lily as she searches for clues to her past and discovers the power of divine femininity. The book was adapted into a 2008 drama that was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, and stars Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah and Alicia Keys.
This coming-of-age novel is set in South Carolina in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed. Lily is a young white girl who runs away from her abusive single father in search of clues about her mother, who died when she was young and whom Lily has idealized in her mind. However, what she finds does not align with her narrative and she struggles to make sense of everything. “People, in general, would rather die than forgive. It’s that hard.”
Lily finds a community of Black women who teach her about the Black Madonna, the importance of storytelling and beekeeping. Lily also grows to overcome her initial prejudices from being raised by a racist father: “Since I want to tell the whole truth, which means the worst parts, I thought they could be smart, but not as smart as me, me being white. Lying on the cot in the honey house, though, all I could think was August is so intelligent, so cultured, and I was surprised by this. That’s what let me know I had some prejudice buried inside me.”
Unsurprisingly, bees are everywhere in the novel. The queen bee is the mother of every bee in the hive, just like the Virgin Mary is the mother of the world (“I live in a hive of darkness, and you are my mother, I told her. You are the mother of thousands“). Like the Boatwright sisters, bees live in a community where they each have an essential function, and there is an unseen complex communication underlying everything they do. Lily is searching for answers about her mother Deborah; the story of Deborah in the Bible is translated from the Hebrew name Devorah, meaning “bee,” and the lily is associated with the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. “That night, in my bed, when I closed my eyes, bee hum ran through my body. Ran through the whole earth. It was the oldest sound there was. Souls flying away.”
The movie was a fairly accurate adaptation of Kidd’s novel; there were a few small edits that were made to condense the story into a 2-hour movie, but that is to be expected. However, the relationship between Lily and T. Ray had some notable changes: in the book, Lily originally mourns the loving father she never had and calls T. Ray to see if he is worried about her. Of course he’s just mad at her and uses the phone call to trace her location. The movie version of T. Ray demonstrates regret and sadness over how he treated Lily, which doesn’t align with the book, and the ending was changed so that he admits to lying about Lily accidentally killing her mother.
“The Secret Life of Bees” is Kidd’s first novel, and it borrows some ideas from her own life coming of age in 1964. “Like Lily, I was powerfully affected by the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the racial unrest that fomented during those hot, volatile months,” Kidd wrote on her website. She also grew up in a house that housed bees in the walls: “At times, the whole house seemed to hum. I remember my mother cleaning up the honey that leaked from the cracks and made tiny puddles on the floor.”
It seems the author is pleased with how her book was adapted. “I’d glibly said that handing over my novel to Hollywood had seemed like leaping out of an airplane, but sitting there waiting for the film to begin, it really did seem that way,” Kidd said in a 2018 interview. “The parachute opened, thankfully, and the whole thing floated rather nicely to earth.”
The book has won the following awards:
- Named one of the Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Association (2003)
- Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2002)
- Book Sense Paperback of the Year award from the American Booksellers Association (2004)
The movie has won the following awards:
- Named “Favorite Movie Drama” at the People’s Choice Awards (2009)
- Named “Favorite Independent Movie” at the People’s Choice Awards (2009)
- Outstanding Motion Picture from the NAACP Image Awards (2009)
- Additional Image Award nominations: Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture, Outstanding Actor, and Outstanding Supporting Actress