Monday, September 5, 2011

Book: The Secret Life of Bees

(Image from C/W Mars Catalog)

The Secret Life of Bees By Sue Monk Kidd may seem like an odd book for me to be mentioning in a blog about mythology and folklore and to be honest, it is. Set in 1964 South Carolina it is a novel about a young white girl, Lily, who escapes her abusive father and leaves town with her black “stand-in mother”. They are taken in by three black, bee-keeping sisters who have an elusive connection to Lily’s dead mother. Even though the three sisters introduce Lily and Rosaleen to the religion of the Black Madonna, the story is not overtly religious in nature, but chronicles Lily’s coming of age.
I am mentioning it here, however, because I think it makes an excellent example of something I hope to be talking about again later this week: the importance of stories in the construction of identities. The religion of the Black Madonna is not particularly well defined or all that strict, but it plays an important part in building the community of the Daughters of Mary, who become Lily’s adoptive family of sorts. At the heart of the religion lies the story of how a particular statue that fell off the bow of a ship washed up on shore and got taken in by a group of slaves as a symbol of the virgin Mary, and their hope for salvation.
The story’s importance is highlighted by the introduction that August, eldest of the three sisters, gives the tale at the first meeting of the Daughters that Lily and Rosaleen attend. August astutely observes, “Really, it’s good for all of us to hear it again… Stories have to be told, or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here” (p. 107). This is an idea that is especially apparent when talking about mythology and folklore, but here it also highlights the importance of everyday happenings. All experiences can be recorded and mythologized over time, since every experience plays a part in building history and identity.
Another way this is illustrated is through a short instance later in the book when Lily’s friend Zach gets arrested. Since Lily wants to become a writer and English professor, she keeps a notebook of stories where she fictionalizes many of her experiences since she’s come to live with the sisters. When she visits Zach in jail she says, “ ‘I’ll write this all down for you… I’ll put it in a story.’ I don’t know if that’s what he wanted to ask me, but it’s something everybody wants – for someone to see the hurt done to them and set it down like it matters” (p. 185). Again, this highlights the idea that all experiences, especially trials of opposition, play an important role in shaping identity, especially when written down and shared in the form of a story. It is through the sharing of stories that experiences are shared and common ground can be found.
Although these pieces do not play major parts in the overall story and message being told in The Secret Life of Bees, I thought it was important to highlight that sometimes themes can be found in stories even when we least expect them. I suppose that storytelling is naturally going to be a theme that is part of all books on some level, but I honestly was not expecting to find much about storytelling and identity when I picked up this book. The idea that all experiences can feed into stories that shape identity is an important one to consider carefully before I jump into my next subject, which might come as even more of a shock (but you will have to wait to find out what it is).
Kidd, Sue Monk. (2002). The Secret Life of Bees. New York: Penguin Books.

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