The Secret Life of Bees (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition)

The Secret Life of Bees (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition)

by Sue Monk Kidd


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After her "stand-in mother," a bold black woman named Rosaleen, insults the three biggest racists in town, Lily Owens joins Rosaleen on a journey to Tiburon, South Carolina, where they are taken in by three black, bee-keeping sisters.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780613583862
Publisher: Turtleback Books
Publication date: 02/01/2003
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 394,693
Product dimensions: 5.06(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.56(d)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

Sue Monk Kidd, author of the highly acclaimed memoirs The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and When the Heart Waits, has won a Poets & Writers award, a Katherine Anne Porter Award, and a Bread Loaf scholarship. Two of her short stories--including an excerpt from The Secret Life of Bees--were selected as notable stories in Best American Short Stories. The Secret Life of Bees was nominated for the prestigious Orange Prize for fiction in England.


Charleston, South Carolina

Place of Birth:

Albany, Georgia


B.S., Texas Christian University, 1970

Read an Excerpt

The queen, for her part, is the unifying force of the community; if she is removed from the hive, the workers very quickly sense her absence. After a few hours, or even less, they show unmistakable signs of queenlessness

Man and Insects

Chapter One

At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam.

During the day I heard them tunneling through the walls of my bedroom, sounding like a radio tuned to static in the next room, and I imagined them in there turning the walls into honeycombs, with honey seeping out for me to taste.

The bees came the summer of 1964, the summer I turned fourteen and my life went spinning off into a whole new orbit, and I mean whole new orbit. Looking back on it now, I want to say the bees were sent to me. I want to say they showed up like the angle Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary, setting events in motion I could never have guessed. I know it is presumptuous to compare my small life to hers, but I have reason to believe she wouldn't mind; I will get to that. Right now it's enough to say that despite everything that happened that summer, I remain tender toward the bees.


TX:July 1, 1964, I lay in bed, waiting for the bees to show up, thinking of what Rosaleen had said when I told herabout their nightly visitations.

"Bees swarm before death," she'd said.

Rosaleen had worked for us since my mother died. My daddy<\#209>who I called T. Ray because "Daddy" never fit him<\#209>had pulled her out of the peach orchard, where she'd worked as one of his pickers. She had a big round face and a body that sloped out from her neck like a pup tent, and she was so black that night seemed to seep from her skin. She lived alone in a little house tucked back in the woods, not far from us, and came every day to cook, clean, and be my stand-in mother. Rosaleen had never had a child herself, so for the last ten years I'd been her pet guinea pig.

Bees swarm before death. She was full of crazy ideas that I ignored, but I lay there thinking about his one, wondering if the bees had come with my death in mind. Honestly, I wasn't that disturbed by the idea. Every one of those bees could have descended on me like a flock of angels and stung me till I died, and it wouldn't have been the worst thing to happen. People who think dying is the worst thing don't know a thing about life.

My mother died when I was four years old. It was a fact of life, but if I brought it up, people would suddenly get interested in their hangnails and cuticles, or else distant places in the sky, and seem not to hear me. Once in a while, though, some caring soul would say, "Just put it out of your head, Lily. It was an accident. You didn't mean to do it."

That night I lay in bed and thought about dying and going to be with my mother in paradise. I would meet her saying, "Mother, forgive. Please forgive," and she would kiss my skin till it grew chapped and tell me I was not to blame. She would tell me this for the first ten thousand years.

The next ten thousand years she would fix my hair. She would brush it into such a tower of beauty, people all over heaven would drop their harps just to admire it. You can tell which girls lack mothers by the look of their hair. My hair was constantly going off in eleven wrong directions, and T. Ray, naturally, refused to buy me bristle rollers, so all year I'd have to roll it on Welch's grape juice cans, which had nearly turned me into an insomniac. I was always having to choose between decent hair and a good night's sleep.

I decided I would take four or five centuries to tell her about the special misery of living with T. Ray. He had an orneryness year-round, but especially in the summer, when he worked his peach orchards daylight to dusk. Mostly I stayed out of his way. His only kindness was for Snout, his bird dog, who slept in his bed and got her stomach scratched anytime she rolled onto her wiry back. I've seen Snout pee on T. Ray's boot and it not get a rise out of him.

I had asked God repeatedly to do something about T. Ray. He'd gone to church for forty years and was only getting worse. It seemed like this should tell God something.

I kicked back the sheets. The room sat in perfect stillness, not one bee anywhere. Every minute I looked at the clock on my dresser and wondered what was keeping them.

Finally, sometime close to midnight, when my eyelids had nearly given up the strain of staying open, a purring noise started over in the corner, low and vibrating, a sound you could almost mistake for a cat. Moments later shadows moved like spatter pain along the walls, catching the light when they passed the window so I could see the outline of wings. The sound swelled in the dark till the entire room was pulsating, till the air itself became alive and matted with bees. They lapsed around my body, making me the perfect center of a whirlwind cloud. I could not hear myself think for all the bee hum.

I dug my nails into my palms till my skin had nearly turned to herringbone. A person could get stung half to death in a roomful of bees.

Still. The sight was a true spectacle. Suddenly I couldn't stand not showing it off to somebody, even if the only person around was T. Ray. And if he happened to get stung by a couple of hundred bees, well, I was sorry.

I slid from the covers and dashed through the bees for the door. I woke him by touching his arm with one finger, softly at first, then harder and harder till I was jabbing into his flesh, marveling at how hard it was.

T. Ray bolted from bed, wearing nothing but his underwear. I dragged him toward my room, him shouting how this better be good, how the house damn well better be on fire, and Snout barking like we were on a dove shoot.

"Bees!" I shouted. "There's a swarm of bees in my room!"

But when we got there, they'd vanished back into the wall like they knew he was coming, like they didn't want to waste their flying stunts on him.

"Goddamn it, Lily, this ain't funny."

I looked up and down the walls. I got down under the bed and begged the very dust and coils of my bedsprings to produce a bee.

"They were here," I said. "Flying everywhere."

"Yeah, and there was a goddamn herd of buffalo in here, too."

"Listen," I said. "You can hear them buzzing."

He cocked his ear toward the wall with pretend seriousness. "I don't hear any buzzing," he said, and twirled his finger beside his temple. "I guess they must have flown out of that cuckoo clock you call a brain. You wake me up again, Lily, and I'll get out the Martha Whites, you hear me?"

Martha Whites were a form of punishment only T. Ray could have dreamed up. I shut my mouth instantly.

Still, I couldn't let the matter go entirely--<\#209>T. Ray thinking I was so desperate I would invent an invasion of bees to get attention. Which is how I got the bright idea of catching a jar of these bees, presenting them to T. Ray, and saying, "Now who's making things up?"


My first and only memory of my mother was the day she died. I tried for a long time to conjure up an image of her before that, just a sliver of something, like her tucking me into bed, reading the adventures of Uncle Wiggly, or hanging my underclothes near the space heater on ice-cold mornings. Even her picking a switch off the forsythia bush and stinging my legs would have been welcome.

The day she died was December 3, 1954. The furnace had cooked the air so hot my mother had peeled off her sweater and stood in short sleeves, jerking at the window in her bedroom, wrestling with the stuck paint.

Finally she gave up and said, "Well, fine, we'll just burn the hell up in here, I guess."

Her hair was black and generous, with thick curls circling her face, a face I could never quite coax into view, despite the sharpness of everything else.

I raised my arms to her, and she picked me up, saying I was way too big a girl to hold like this, but holding me anyway. The moment she lifted me, I was wrapped in her smell.

The scent got laid down in me in a permanent way and had all the precision of cinnamon. I used to go regularly into the Sylvan Mercantile and smell every perfume bottle they had, trying to identify it. Every time I showed up, the perfume lady acted surprised, saying, "My goodness, look who's here." Like I hadn't just been in there the week before and gone down the entire row of bottles. Shalimar, Chanel No. 5, White Shoulders.

I'd say, "You got anything new?"

She never did.

So it was a shock when I came upon the scent on my fifth-grade teacher, who said it was nothing but plain ordinary Ponds Cold Cream.

The afternoon my mother died, there was a suitcase open on the floor, sitting near the stuck window. She moved in and out of the closet, dropping this and that into the suitcase, not bothering to fold them.

I followed her into the closet and scooted beneath dress hems and pant legs, into darkness and wisps of dust and little dead moths, back where orchard mud and the moldy smell of peaches clung to T. Ray's boots. I stuck my hands inside a pair of white high heels and clapped them together.

The closet floor vibrated whenever someone climbed the stairs below it, which is how I knew T. Ray was coming. Over my head I heard my mother pulling things from the hangers, the swish of clothes, wire clinking together.

When his shoes clomped into the room, she sighed, the breath leaving her as if her lungs had suddenly clenched. This is the last thing I remember with perfect crispness<\#209>her breath floating down to me like a tiny parachute, collapsing without a trace among the piles of shoes.

I don't remember what they said, only the fury of their words, how the air turned raw and full of welts. Later it would remind me of birds trapped inside a closed room, flinging themselves against the windows and the walls, against each other. I inched backward, deeper into the closet, feeling my fingers in my mouth, the taste of shoes, of feet.

Dragged out, I didn't know at first whose hands pulled me, then found myself in my mother's arms, breathing her smell. She smoothed my hair, said, "Don't worry," but even as she said it, I was peeled away by T. Ray. He carried me to the door and set me down in the hallway. "Go to your room," he said.

"I don't want to," I cried, trying to push past him, back into the room, back where she was.

"Get in your goddamned room!" he shouted, and shoved me. I landed against the wall, then fell forward onto my hands and knees. Lifted my head, looking past him, I saw her running across the room. Running at him, yelling. "Leave. Her. Alone."

I huddled on the floor beside the door and watched through air that seemed all scratched up. I saw him take her by the shoulders and shake her, her head bouncing back and forth. I saw the whiteness of his lip.

And then -- <\#209>though everything starts to blur now in my mind -- <\#209>she lunged away from him into the closet, away from his grabbing hands, scrambling for something high on a shelf.

When I saw the gun in her hand, I ran toward her, clumsy and falling, wanting to save her, to save us all.

Time folded in on itself then. What is left lies in clear yet disjointed pieces in my head. The gun shining like a toy in her hand, how he snatched it away and waved it around. The gun on the floor. Bending to pick it up. The noise that exploded around us.

This is what I know about myself. She was all I wanted. And I took her away


T. Ray and I lived just outside Sylvan, South Carolina, population 3,100. Peach stands and Baptist churches, that sums it up.

At the entrance to the farm we had a big wooden sign with Owens Peach Enterprise painted across it in the worst orange color you've ever seen. I hated that sign. But the sign was nothing compared with the giant peach perched atop a sixty-foot pole beside the gate. Everyone at school referred to it as the Great Fanny, and I'm cleaning up the language. Its fleshy color, not to mention the crease down the middle, gave it the unmistakable appearance of a rear end. Rosaleen said it was T. Ray's way of mooning the entire world. That was T. Ray.

He didn't believe in slumber parties or sock hops, which wasn't a big concern as I never got invited to them anyway, but he refused to drive me to town for football games, pep rallies, or Beta Club car washes, which were held on Saturdays. He did not care that I wore clothes I made for myself in home3 economics class, cotton print shirtwaists with crooked zippers and skirts hanging below my knees, outfits only the Pentecostal girls wore. I might as well have worn a sign on my back: I am not popular and never will be.

I needed all the help that fashion could give me, since no one, not a single person had ever said, "Lily, you are such a pretty child," except for Miss Jennings at church, and she was legally blind.

I watched my reflection not only in the mirror, but in store windows and across the television when it wasn't on, trying to get a fix on my looks. My hair was black like my mother's but basically a nest of cowlicks, and it worried me that I didn't have much of a chin. I kept thinking I'd grow one the same time my breasts came in, but it didn't work out that way. I had nice eyes, though, what you would call Sophia Loren eyes, but still, even the boys who wore their hair in ducktails dripping with Vitalis and carried combs in their shirt pockets didn't seem attracted to me, and they were considered hard up.

Matters below my neck had shaped up, not that I could show off that part. It was fashionable to wear cashmere twinsets and plaid kilts midthigh, but T. Ray said hell would be an ice rink before I went out like that<\#209>did I want to end up pregnant like Bitsy Johnson whose skirt barely covered her ass? How he knew about Bitsy is a mystery of life, but it was true about her skirts and true about the baby. An unfortunate coincidence is all it was.

Rosaleen knew less about fashion than T. Ray did, and when it was cold, God-help-me-Jesus, she made me go to school wearing long britches under my Penecostal dresses.

There was nothing I hated worse than clumps of whispering girls who got quiet when I passed. I started picking scabs off my body and, when I didn't have any, gnawing the flesh around my fingernails till I was a bleeding wreck. I worried so much about how I looked and whether I was doing things right, I felt half the time I was impersonating a girl instead of really being one.

I had thought my real chance would come from going to charm school at the Woman's Club last spring, Friday afternoons for six weeks, but I got barred because I didn't have a mother, a grandmother, or even a measly aunt to present me with a white rose at the closing ceremony. Rosaleen doing it was against the rules. I'd cried till I threw up in the sink.

"You're charming enough," Rosaleen had said, washing the vomit out of the sink basin. "You don't need to go to some highfalutin school to get charm."

"I do so," I said. "They teach everything. How to walk and pivot, what to do with your ankles when you sit in a chair, how to get into a car, pour tea, take off your gloves<\!q>.<\!q>.<\!q>."

Rosaleen blew air from her lips. "Good Lord," she said.

"Arrange flowers in a vase, talk to boys, tweeze your eyebrows, shave your legs, apply lipstick<\!q>.<\!q>.<\!q>."

"What about vomit in a sink? They teach a charming way to do that?" she asked.

Sometimes I purely hated her.


The morning after I woke T. Ray, Rosaleen stood in the doorway of my room, watching me chase a bee with a mason jar. Her lip was rolled out so far I could see the little sunrise of pink inside her mouth.

"What are you doing with that jar?" she said.

"I'm catching bees to show T Ray. He thinks I'm making them up."

"Lord, give me strength." She'd been shelling butter beans on the porch, and sweat glistened on the pearls of hair around her forehead. She pulled at the front of her dress, opening an airway along her bosom, big and soft as couch pillows.

The bee landed on the state map I kept tacked on the wall, I watched it walk along the coast of South Carolina on scenic Highway 17. I clamped the mouth of the jar against the wall, trapping it between Charleston and Georgetown. When I slid on the lid, it went into a tailspin, throwing itself against the glass over and over with pops and clicks, reminding me of the hail that landed sometimes on the windows.

I'd made the jar as nice as I could with felty petals, fat with pollen, and more than enough nail holes in the lid to keep the bees from perishing, since for all I knew, people might come back one day as the very thing they killed.

I brought the jar level with my nose. "Come look at this thing fight," I said to Rosaleen.

When she stepped in the room, her scent floated out to me, dark and spicy like the snuff she packed inside her cheek. She held her small jug with its coin-sized mouth and a handle for her to loop her finger through. I watched her press it along her chin, her lips fluted out like a flower, then spit a curl of black juice inside it.

She stared at the bee and shook her head. "If you get stung, don't come whining to me," she said, "<\#213>cause I ain't gonna care."

That was a lie.

I was the only one who knew that despite her sharp ways, her heart was more tender than a flower skin and she loved me beyond reason.

I hadn't known this until I was eight and she bought me an Easter-dyed biddy from the mercantile. I found it trembling in a corner of its pen, the color of purple grapes, with sad little eyes that cast around for its mother. Rosaleen let me bring it home, right into the living room, where I strewed a box of Quaker Oats on the floor for it to eat and she didn't raise a word of protest.

The chick left dollops of violet-streaked droppings all over the place, due, I suppose, to the dye soaking into its fragile system. We had just started to clean them up when T. Ray burst in, threatening to boil the chick for dinner and fire Rosaleen for being an imbecile. He started to swoop at the biddy with his tractor-grease hands, but Rosaleen planted herself in front of him. "There is worse things in the house than chicken shit," she said and looked him up one side and down the other, "You ain't touching that chick."

His boots whispered uncle all the way down the hall. I thought, She loves me, and it was the first time such a far-fetched idea had occurred to me.

Her age was a mystery, since she didn't possess a birth certificate. She would tell me she was born in 1909 or 1919, depending on how old she felt at the moment. She was sure about the place: McClellanville, South Carolina, where her mama had woven sweet-grass baskets and sold them on the roadside.

"Like me selling peaches," I'd said to her.

"Not one thing like you selling peaches," she'd said back, "You ain't got seven children you gotta feed from it."

"You've got six brothers and sisters?" I'd thought of her as alone in the world except for me.

"I did have, but I don't know where a one of them is."

She'd thrown her husband out three years after they married, for carousing. "You put his brain in a bird, the bird would fly backward," she liked to say. I often wondered what that bird would do with Rosaleen's brain. I decided half the time it would drop shit on your head and the other half of it would sit on abandoned nests with its wings spread wide.

I used to have daydreams in which she was white and married T. Ray, and became my real mother. Other times I was a Negro orphan she found in a cornfield and adopted. Once in a while I had us living in a foreign country like New York, where she could adopt me and we could both stay our natural color.


My mother's name was Deborah. I thought that was the prettiest name I'd ever heard, even though T. Ray refused to speak it. If I said it, he acted like he might go straight to the kitchen and stab something. Once when I asked him when her birthday was and what cake icing she preferred, he told me to shut up, and when I asked him a second time, he picked up a jar of blackberry jelly and threw it against the kitchen cabinet. We have blue stains to this day.

I did manage to get a few scraps of information from him, though, such as my mother was buried in Virginia where he people came from. I got worked up at that, thinking I'd found a grandmother. No, he tells me, my mother was an only child whose mother died ages ago. Naturally. Once when he stepped on a roach in the kitchen, he told me my mother had spent hours luring roaches out of the house with bits of marshmallow and trails of graham-cracker crumbs, that she was a lunatic when it came to saving bugs.

The oddest things caused me to miss her. Like training bras. Who was I going to ask about that? And who but my mother could've understood the magnitude of driving me to junior cheerleader tryouts? I can tell you for certain T. Ray didn't grasp it. But you know when I missed her the most? The day I was twelve and woke up with the rose-petal stain on my panties. I was so proud of that flower and didn't have a soul to show it to except Rosaleen.

Not too long after that I found a paper bag in the attic stapled at the top. Inside it I found the last traces of my mother.

There was a photograph of a woman smirking in front of an old car, wearing a light-colored dress with padded shoulders. Her expression said, "Don't you dare take this picture," but she wanted it taken, you could see that. You could not believe the stories I saw in that picture, how she was waiting at the car fender for love to come to her, and not too patiently.

I laid the photograph beside my eighth-grade picture and examined every possible similarity. She was more or less missing a chin, too, but even so, she was above-average pretty, which offered me genuine hope for my future.

The bag contained a pair of white cotton gloves stained the color of age. When I pulled them out, I thought, Her very hands were inside here. I feel foolish about it now, but one time I stuffed the gloves with cotton balls and held them through the night.

The end-all mystery inside the bag was a small wooden picture of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I recognized her even though her skin was black, only a shade light than Rosaleen's. It looked to me like somebody had cut the black Mary's picture from a book, glued it into a sanded piece of wood about two inches across, and varnished it. On the back an unknown hand had written "Tiburon, S.C."

For two years now I'd kept these things of hers inside a tin box, buried in the orchard. There was a special place out there in the long tunnel of trees no one knew about, not even Rosaleen. I'd started going there before I could tie my shoelaces. At first it was just a spot to hide from T Ray and his meanness or from the memory of that afternoon when the gun went off, but later I would slip out there, sometimes after T. Ray had gone to bed, just to lie under the trees and be peaceful. It was my plot of earth, my cubbyhole.

I'd placed her things inside the tin box and buried it out there late one night by flashlight, too scared to leave them hanging around in my room, even in the back of a draw. I was afraid T. Ray might go up to the attic and discover her things were missing, and turn my room upside down searching for them. I hated to think what he'd do to me if he found them hidden among my stuff.

Now and then I'd go out there and dig up the box. I would lie on the ground with the trees folded over me, wearing her gloves, smiling at the photograph. I would study "Tiburon, S.C." on the back of the black Mary picture, the funny slant of the lettering, and wonder what sort of place it was. I'd look it up on the map once, and it wasn't more than two hours away. Had my mother been there and bought this picture? I always promised myself on day, when I was grown-up enough, I would take the bus over there. I wanted to go every place she had ever been.


After my morning of capturing bees, I spent the afternoon in the peach stand out on the highway, selling T. Ray's peaches. It was the loneliest summer job a girl could have, stuck in a roadside hut with three walls and a flat tin roof.

I sat on a Coke crate and watched pickups zoom by till I was nearly poisoned with exhaust fumes and boredom. Thursday afternoons were usually a big peach day, with women getting ready for Sunday cobblers, but not a soul stopped.

T. Ray refused to let me bring books out here and read, and if I smuggled one out, say, Lost Horizon, stuck under my shirt, somebody, like Mrs. Watson from the next farm, would see him at church and say, "Saw your girl in the peach stand reading up a storm. You must be proud." And he would half kill me.

What kind of person is against reading? I think he believed it would stir up ideas of college, which he thought a waste of money for girls, even if they did, like me, score the highest number a human being can get on their verbal aptitude test. Math aptitude is another thing, but people aren't meant to be overly bright in everything.

I was the only student who didn't groan and carry on when Mrs. Henry assigned us another Shakespeare play. Well actually, I did pretend to groan, but inside I was as thrilled as if I'd been crowned Sylvan's Peach Queen.

Up until Mrs. Henry came along, I'd believed beauty college would be the upper limit of my career. Once, studying her face, I told her if she was my customer, I would give her a French twist that would do wonders for her, and she said<\#209>and I quote <\#209>"Please, Lily, you are insulting your fine intelligence. Do you have any idea how smart you are? You could be a professor or a writer with actual books to your credit. Beauty school. Please."

" It took me a month to get over the shock of having life possibilities. You know how adults love to ask, "So<\!q>.<\!q>.<\!q>.<\q>what are you going be when you grow up? I can't tell you how much I'd hated that question, but suddenly I was going around volunteering to people, people who didn't even want to know, that I planned to be a professor and a writer of actual books.

I kept a collection of my writings. For a while everything I wrote had a horse in it. After we read Ralph Waldo Emerson in class, I wrote "My Philosophy of Life," which I intended for the start of a book but could only get three pages out of it. Mrs. Henry said I needed to live past fourteen years old before I would have a philosophy.

She said a scholarship was my only hope for a future and lent me her private books for the summer. Whenever I opened one, T. Ray said, "Who do you think you are, Julius Shakespeare?" The man sincerely thought that was Shakespeare's first name, and if you think I should have corrected him, you are ignorant about the art of survival. He also referred to me as Miss Brown-Nose-in-a-Book and occasionally as Miss Emily-Big-Head-Diction. He meant Dickinson, but again, there are things you let go by.

Without books in the peach stand, I often passed the time making up poems, but that slow afternoon I didn't have the patience for rhyming words. I just sat out there and thought about how much I hated the peach stand, how completely and absolutely I hated it.


The day before I'd gone to first grade, T. Ray had found me in the peach stand sticking a nail into one of his peaches.

He walked toward me with his thumbs jammed into his pockets and his eyes squinted half shut from the glare. I watched his shadow slide over the dirt and weeds and thought he had come to punish me for stabbing a peach. I didn't even know why I was doing it.

Instead he said, "Lily, you're starting school tomorrow, so there are things you need to know. About your mother."

For a moment everything got still and quiet, as if the wind had died and the birds had stopped flying. When he squatted down in front of me, I felt caught in a hot dark I could not break free of.

"It's time you knew what happened to her, and I want you to hear it from me. Not from people out there talking."

We had never spoken of this, and I felt a shiver pass over me. The memory of that day would come back to me at odd moments. The stuck window. The smell of her. The clink of hangers. The suitcase. The way they'd fought and shouted. Most of all the gun on the floor, the heaviness when I'd lifted it.

I knew the explosion I'd heard that day had killer her. The sound still sneaked into my head occasionally and surprised me. Sometimes it seemed that when I'd held the gun there hadn't been any noise at all, that it had come later, but other times, sitting alone on the back steps, bored and wishing for something to do, or pent up in my room on a rainy day, I felt I had caused it, that when I'd lifted the gun, the sound had torn through the room and gouged out our hearts.

It was a secret knowledge that would slip up and overwhelm me, and I would take off running -- even if it was raining out, I ran -- straight down the hill to my special place in the peach orchard. I'd like right down on the ground and it would calm me. Now T. Ray scooped up a handful of dirt and let if fall out of his hands. "The day she died, she was cleaning out the closet," he said. I could not account for the strange tone of his voice, an unnatural sound, how it was almost, but not quite, kind.

Cleaning the closet. I had never considered what she was doing those last minutes of her life, why she was in the closet, what they had fought about.

"I remember," I said. My voice sounded small and faraway to me, like it was coming from an ant hole in the ground.

His eyebrows lifted, and he brought his face closer to me. Only his eyes showed confusion. "You what?"

"I remember," I said again. "You were yelling at each other."

A tightening came into his face. "Is that right?" he said. His lips had started to turn pale, which was the thing I always watched for. I took a step backward.

"Goddamn it, you were four years old!" he shouted. "You don't know what you remember."

In the silence that followed, I considered lying to him, saying, I take it back. I don't remember anything. Tell me what happened, but there was such a powerful need in me, pent up for so long, to speak about it, to say the words.

I looked down at my shoes, at the nail I'd dropped when I'd seen him coming. "There was a gun."

"Christ," he said.

He looked at me a long time, then walked over to the bushel baskets stacked at the back of the stand. He stood there a minute with his hands balled up before he turned around and came back.

"What else?" he said. "You tell me right now what you know."

"The gun was on the floor --"

"And you picked it up," he said. "I guess you remember that."

The exploding sound had started to echo around in my head. I looked off in the direction of the orchard, wanting to break and run.

"I remember picking it up," I said. "But that's all."

He leaned down and held me by the shoulders, gave me a little shake. "You don't remember anything else? You're sure? Now, think."

I paused so long he cocked his head, looking at me, suspicious.

"No, sir, that's all."

"Listen to me," he said, his fingers squeezing into my arms. "We were arguing like you said. We didn't see you at first. Then we turned around and you were standing there holding the gun. You'd picked it up off the floor. Then it just went off."

He let me go and rammed his hands into his pockets. I could hear his hands jingling keys and nickels and pennies. I wanted so much to grab on to his leg, to feel him reach down and lift me to his chest, but I couldn't move, and neither did he. He stared at a place over my head. A place he was being very careful to study.

"The police asked lots of questions, but if was just one of those horrible things. You didn't mean to do it," he said softly. "But if anybody wants to know, that's what happened."

Then he left, walking back toward the house. He'd gone only a little way when he looked back. "And don't stick that nail into my peaches again."

--from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Copyright © January 2002, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.

What People are Saying About This

Ursula Hegi

Sue Monk Kidd is an extraordinary storyteller. In The Secret Life of Bees, she explores a young girl's search for the truth about her mother; her courage to tear down racial barriers; and her joy as she claims her place within a community of women. Beautifully written.

Christina Schwarz

With imagination as lush and colorful as the American South, a clutch of deliciously eccentric characters, and vivid prose, Sue Monk Kidd creates a rich, maternal haven in a harsh world.

Joanna Trollope

I am amazed that this moving, original, and accomplished book is a first novel. It is wonderfully written, powerful, poignant, and humorous, and takes a line which is — refreshingly — strongly female without being cliche-feminist. It is also deliciously eccentric, which lifts it out of the usual category of a rite-of-passage novel into the realms of real distinction. DO read it.

Anne Rivers Siddons

This is the story of a young girl's journey toward healing, and of finding, at its end, not only wholeness, but the intrinsic sacredness of living in the world. I think it is simply wonderful.

Connie May Fowler

Sue Monk Kidd has written a wonderful novel about mothers and daughters and the transcendent power of love, all the while masterfully illuminating the feminine face of God.

Luanne Rice

The Secret Life of Bees is a novel of love and almost unbelievable courage, the quest of one young girl in search of her mother and so much more. Sue Monk Kidd takes on huge things, and by writing about what is mysterious, even difficult, in life, illuminates what is beautiful. She proves that a family can be found where you least expect it—maybe not under your own roof, but in that magical place where you find love. The Secret Life of Bees is a gift, filled with hope.

Anita Shreve

Sue Monk Kidd's eccentric, inventive, and ultimately forgiving novel is reminscent of the work of Reynolds Price in its ability to create a truly original Southern voice.

Shelby Hearon

Writing with the intimate voice of the memoirist and with the Southerner's abiding sense of place, Sue Monk Kidd has written a forgiving story for the motherless child in all of us.

Susan Isaacs

What a splendid novel! It's wonderfully thoughtful and sensitive and compulsively readable.

Reading Group Guide


Were you surprised to learn that T. Ray used to be different, that once he truly loved Deborah? How do you think Deborah's leaving affected him? Did it shed any light on why T. Ray was so cruel and abusive to Lily?

Had you ever heard of "kneeling on grits"? What qualities did Lily have that allowed her to survive, endure, and eventually thrive, despite T. Ray?

Who is the queen bee in this story?

Lily's relationship to her dead mother was complex, ranging from guilt to idealization, to hatred, to acceptance. What happens to a daughter when she discovers her mother once abandoned her? Is Lily right-would people generally rather die than forgive? Was it harder for Lily to forgive her mother or herself?

Lily grew up without her mother, but in the end she finds a house full of them. Have you ever had a mother figure in your life who wasn't your true mother? Have you ever had to leave home to find home?

What compelled Rosaleen to spit on the three men's shoes? What does it take for a person to stand up with conviction against brutalizing injustice? What did you like best about Rosaleen?

Had you ever heard of the Black Madonna? What do you think of the story surrounding the Black Madonna in the novel? How would the story be different if it had been a picture of a white Virgin Mary? Do you know women whose lives have been deepened or enriched by a connection to an empowering Divine Mother?

Why is it important that women come together? What did you think of the "Calendar Sisters" and the Daughters of Mary? How did being in the company of this circle of females transform Lily?

May built a wailing wall to help her come to terms with the pain she felt. Even though we don't have May's condition, do we also need "rituals," like wailing walls, to help us deal with our grief and suffering?

How would you describe Lily and Zach's relationship? What drew them together? Did you root for them to be together?

Project into the future. Does Lily ever see her father again? Does she become a beekeeper? A writer? What happens to Rosaleen? What happens to Lily and Zach? Who would Zach be today?

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The Secret Life of Bees 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1461 reviews.
Sarah_661 More than 1 year ago
I'm only eleven years old and loved the book. I got it at the library after seeing the trailer to the movie. It is a very humbling book. I don't think that kids under 13 should read it though. It has lots of cursing and is extremly descriptive in parts it shouldn't be. It was an awsome book though. Please read it you will love it!!!

P.S. The books i recomended are even better!!!
Andapanda29 More than 1 year ago
The story was eloquent, well written, and poignant, but what I think really grabbed me and kept my keen interest was the narration by Jenna Lamia. Her voice was as fluid and sweet as honey and her story-telling just brought you right into the story. One could almost be convinced Lily Owens was an actual person and Jenna's voice was really Lily's as she told you the story of her summer. I loved listening to the audiobook and when recommending this book to anyone, I always tell them you cannot fully appreciate the beauty of this story without hearing Jenna's narration of it on audiobook. I've listened to it twice already.
k-dub More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees. When I was first told that I had to read it I was kind of disappointed. I started reading and it was so good! The book was about a girl by the name of Lily. She was 14 years old and had no mother. She was told by her father, T-Ray, that she killed her. Lily was sick of T-ray and decided to run away from him. She found a box with her mother's stuff in it and found the name of a town: Tiburon, South Carolina. Lily and her nanny, Rosaleen, ran away. Lily gets to Tiburon and is looking for the black Mary on anything. She soon found it in a grocery store. It was on a honey bottle. She asked where it was from and the grocery store guy said it was from and he told her. She finds herself face to face with a bright pink house. She meets June Boatwright and then August Boatwright. She asks if she can have a place to stay and August gladly accepts her. Lily then lives in the honey house with Rosaleen. May Boatwright is the next person she meets, then the Daughters of Mary. She loves all of them immediately, except June. She doesn't get along with her. Then she meets Zach and starts to like him. Lily lies to all of the people I just mentioned for a while and eventually the truth had to come out. She tells August everything. Many other things happen so I recommend you read the book. I really liked this book and would recommend it because it is full of suspense and action. A few things might even surprise you! It's a book you will want to read over and over again. I thought the author's message was that life is short and everybody has things in their life that they're not proud of. I learned that people's lives are hard and they need at least one good friend that they can rely on. People are not always as they seem even if they pretend everything is perfect.
ELA_IRI More than 1 year ago
The Secret Life of Bees is a wonderful novel which kept me wanting more and more by every turning page. The novel starts off in South Carolina in the year 1964. Lily Owens is a 14 year old girl who is the main character of the novel. The whole entire plot surrounds around her blurry memory of her mothers death and her motherless life. She lives with her father T-Ray and nanny/best friend Rosaleen. Rosaleen use to work on T-Ray's peach farm but after the death of Deborah, Lily's mom, she quickly took the roll as nanny. Lily decided to join Rosaleen one day while she went to go vote. While going there Rosaleen started to get harassed by a group of racist, she immediately affronts the group. The officers come and beat her then they arrested both Lily and her. T-Ray comes around later to pick up Lily but not Rosaleen. Before all this happened Lily use to watch bees fly around her ceiling and she use to collect them in a jar. After she got arrested she saw how the bees escaped the confines of the jar, she got a epiphany to run away. She goes to the hospital where Rosaleen is held for her injuries and breaks her out. They both start running away to Tiburon, South Carolina. Lily wanted to go here because she saw that address on a black Virgin Mary she found in her mothers stuff. She discovers later on that the Black Virgin Mary is a label for honey maker in that town. In their search they find a pink house with three eccentric sisters, August, June, and May Boatwright. This is where the rest of novel takes place and where Lily has a life changing experience. I really love this book it has so much detail and the characters have such personality sometimes I could almost imagine it in my head perfectly. Even though many people might have found the ending to be dull or leave a reader hanging I found it to be very satisfying and it suited the novel's plot very well. From start to finish I don't think I reach a moment where I might have gotten bored. I would suggest this book to everyone except very young kids because the language and extremely descriptive parts aren't suitable. Otherwise this novel is a must read for anyone looking for something for fun, free time, school or just about anything. I really suggest this book to everyone out there it has to be one of the best books I have read in a while.
MeganElaine More than 1 year ago
I read this book a few months ago so the details escape me, but I really didn't think this book was all that great. It has few redeeming qualities- the thinly described historical aspects as one and the geographical descriptions of South Carolina (appreciated by a native) I didn't fall in love with the main character, Lily. I felt her secret was dragged on for so long in order to create more pages in the book, which is unrealistic at best. Her internal and emotional descriptions by the author did not reflect Lily's physical actions; I thought this book employed a childish writing style. The author made an attempt to tie in the Civil Rights era in this book, but it was thin and from a distant observer's point of view, considering the many characters that were apparently affected. Overall, this book would suit someone who is looking for a typical "feel good" and "predictable ending" read. I was looking for a novel with a little more historical value tied in and a more realistic main character.
DeeAnne More than 1 year ago
This novel is truly one of my favorites. The reader immediately develops sympathies for the protagonist, a young motherless teenage girl on a journey to find a sense of belonging and security in the world. I connected with so many elements of the novel: the southern setting, the idea of a religion/spirituality outside the normal constraints of a church, the many strong female characters, and the interesting nonfiction tidbits woven throughout the plot concerning the habitat of bees.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book! I wish the language weren't so bad in the first 50 or so pages, but other than that it is an incredible book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story of young Lily Melissa Owens in Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees is a heartwarming adventure of a young girl who tries to find her place in the world. In her fourteen years, she has carried with her a sorrowful regret that has emotionally stunted her growth. When she was four years old, she accidently killed her mother, Deborah. Her thoughts of that tragic day have caused her to live her life in flashbacks and everyday she wishes she could turn back time. Sue Monk Kidd takes Lily on a journey in discovery of her life and the life of her mother. With only a few clues of her mother (an old picture, her white gloves, and a wooden picture of black Mary) and the small amount of stories her father, T. Ray, has told her, Lily begins her new life. With a sincere pleasure of writing and her delicate, balanced tone, Sue Monk Kidd captivated my interest from the first page, and I had no choice but to find out how Lily's life was going to end up. In order to read this book, you must awaken all of your senses. Kidd takes her readers to places that feel familiar and I felt as if I was able to reach into the book and touch Lily's face, lift her head up, and tell her that everything will turn out just fine. I felt a genuine connection with Lily, one greater than with any other book I have read. She reminded me of what my life was like as a fourteen-year-old, and I could not imagine carrying as big a burden as she had at that age. To say I love this book would be an understatement. Sue Monk Kidd's use of language delighted me and left me feeling satisfied with not only the story, but with the greater world, the meaning of family, and the places in my mind where I have recently remembered love's true meaning.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you like movies/stories like Man In The Moon, Fried Green Tomatoes and My Girl - then you will definitely like this one. I loved the characters and wish I even knew them. I recommended it to my mother.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an interesting, well-written book with finely-drawn characters. Ms Kidd portrays this troubled time in US history honestly. At times the book is beautiful, especially when it shows how women can be nurturing and protective of other women. One does get the sense though, that someone, either the author or perhaps Lily, sees all women as all-good and the majority of men as all-bad. What concerns me is the current of 'theology' humming through this book. It often times masquerades as Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism. But it is not Catholicism! It is some New Age cafeteria blend of Catholicism, nature worship, Gnosticism, female worship and narcissicism. If you are weak or vulnerable in your faith, or your faith is not grounded on sure knowledge, this book may lead you into error. This may sound overly melodramatic, but I don't believe in taking chances with one's salvation. If you decide to read this book, keep in mind that even though Ms. Kidd got a lot of things right in this story, all contained therein is not truth. And sometimes error can be insidious, sliding in when we aren't even aware of extreme example: do you think those of the People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana knew they were in error?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
 I thought the book The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd was a good book, but I didn't find it very believable. The main character, Lily is a 14 year old girl who thinks she knows everything and thinks she knows whats right for her. Towards the beginning of the book, Lily finally gets the guts to run away from her abusive father, T-ray. Lily meets up with her best friend/nanny, Rosaleen, and sneaks her out of the hospital after she gets in trouble with the police. Lily decides to run away to Tirbon, South Carolina after seeing it written on a picture of her dead mother. After getting to her destination, Lily knocks on the door of some bee keepers, and they gladly let her stay at their house. I didn't think this part was believable, Lily staying at a house in 1964 with three colored women. At the end of the book, Lily realizes that she doesn't need her real mother to feel like she has a family. I think that there was a lot of unneeded writing in the book and I thought it had a slow beginning that dragged on. But there were still some interesting events where you may get angry at the characters. This is why I gave the book three stars, I do recommend the book, if you don't mind a slow beginning, although it isn't very believable.
DrJenski More than 1 year ago
This was a quick read and definitely not worth more than $10! The story was OK, but nothing great. The characters were very one dimensional. The book doesn't inspire me to see the movie.
Meaningful_Book_Lover More than 1 year ago
I kept being told to read this book and that it was amazing, and after I read it I was sort of disappointed. Maybe the book was too over hyped for me or perhaps it just isn't for me, but I found it just to be ok. I can see how it would be a good read for a lot of people and there is a lot of meaning and tough times behind it, but it didn't hold my attention very well and I don't find myself wanting to reread it. Overall, it was just ok.
b-thorson More than 1 year ago
I personally enjoyed Secret Life of Bees. It really made me look at people's lives a different way. Most of the time I didn't understand what was going on because I hadn't experienced a traumatic crisis like that. I still enjoyed the book though. Lily, a 14 year old girl, learns the worst thing ever. T. Ray, her father, told her that she killed her mother. Lily didn't believe it one bit because she loves her mother even though she died. Her step-in mom was an African American named Rosaleen. Rosaleen wasn't a step mother, but Lily saw her as a mom. When Rosaleen goes into town to register to vote, something bad happens. So after Lily does everything in her power to make it right, she decides to run away. Earlier she had found a box that was full with her mother's belongings. On the back of a picture there was writing, it said Tiburon, South Carolina. So when Lily and Rosaleen run away, that is the first place Lily looks. Little to her surprise, she found what she was looking for. The picture was of Black Madonna, and it was on a honey jar. So Lily decides to go find out what the people knew about her mother. She ended up at a bee farm with 3 African American ladies, August, June, and May. Lily didn't tell them the truth of why she was there and decided to keep it a secret until the right time. Many things happened before Lily told the truth, but eventually it can out. Lily found everything she needed to know, and she was pleased with herself. When all was said and done she realized she couldn't go back home, she was a fugitive for running away. T. Ray finds out where she is staying and.. Well you'll just have to read the book and find out. Sue Monk Kidd is an amazing writer. Maybe you won't like Secret Life of Bees, but you never know until you read it and find out. She wrote this book like she experienced it. There are times in it, when you lose track of reality and just stay in the book. Read the book and you'll see that really good.
adunlea More than 1 year ago
Set in the 1960's US in a time of racial tensions Lily narrates her coming of age tale. Lily flees her abusive father and the police with her nanny Rosaleen to find more of her mother's history. She goes to live with the three calendar sisters who have a profound influence on her life. August adopts her as a daughter and helps her to forgive herself and love others. It is a celebration of family and motherhood. Vivid description and enchanting characters record Lily's journey to womanhood in a Kidd's unique southern voice. Reviewed by Annette Dunlea author of Always and Forever and The Honey Trap
Kellie_Grabher More than 1 year ago
This book was recommended to me by my mother-in-law. We must have some really different taste. I know people liked it but I just wasn't one of them. Just really slow paced for me. Characters I liked but not my cup of tea.
nprfan1 More than 1 year ago
Sure, there have been novels written over the years dealing with the American South of the 60's and earlier. A lot of them should have never been published, but among those that have survived - and justifiably so - add Sue Monk Kidd's "The Secret Life of Bees" to the list.

Lily Owens is a teenage girl living in South Carolina in 1964 who has, to put it mildly, an extremely bad relationship with her father, known as T. Ray. This may have something to do with the fact that she accidentally killed her mother when she was four years old. From that time on, she's been under the care of Rosaleen, an African-American woman who was working as one of her daddy's farmhands until he "recruited" her to serve as his housekeeper and "substitute mother" for Lily.

But Lily's hatred for her father and the racial prejudice of the time combine to force Lily and Rosaleen to flee to Tiburon SC, where Lily hopes to find some information about her mother. What she finds is far beyond her expectations, and causes her to rethink not only the memories she has of her mother, but her whole world-view - an immense change, considering where she lives and the political and cultural climate of the times.

Kidd has written what is sure to be regarded as a classic, on the same level as "To Kill a Mockingbird".
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book..I bought it when visiting my sister and packed it for the flight home. I was sucked in instantly. The compassion of those willing to love and the strength of women is moving..
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Secret Life of Bees was just a regular book for me. I got into the book at the beginning and then I slowly lost interest. The book is about a white girl who runs away from her abusive father with a black worker from her farm who took care of her. Some events seemed to be drug out when they could have easily been written faster. However, throughout the book Lily made me yearn for my mother. My mother lives three hours away, and this book made it seem like she lived across the country. I could not even begin to imagine my life without her in it, let alone the guilt of thinking I killed her that Lily struggled with throughout the entire book. This book made me appreciate my mom more than ever, if that is even possible. I did not like how it ended. I wanted so badly for T.Ray to tell Lily that it was not she who killed her mother. I wanted her not to live with that guilt for the rest of her life. However, if he had done that, then it would be T.Ray growing soft inside, which would be out of character for him. Overall, the book for me was just another book. I am not about to run out and tell everyone to read it, but it was an okay book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Seeing that this book was one of the bestsellers at the book store, I thought that I was in for a great read. I found the book to be slow and a bit boring. The story of a white girl being raised by African American women during that period and in the south was completely unrealistic. Not only was this book not a page turner, it was dull.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A moving and well written story, however sad and disturbing at times. Be prepared to shed some tears.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was highly recommended...but I found it lacking......there was great use of imagery and detailed character descriptions, the meat of the story was lacking.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book came highly recommended to me, however, I found I was bored with the story halfway through and was glad when it ended. I enjoyed the bee 'facts' that started each chapter more than the actual mother/daughter plot. It just moved a little too slowly for me...
Guest More than 1 year ago
After starting of on a high note and well afloat, I never thought a story could sink faster than a submarine with a sieve door. I was left with the feeling that the author had no where else to go. And please, spare me the ho-hum ending.
Guest More than 1 year ago
THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES is a touching story about a white girl who leaves her abusive father and finds a home with three crazy black women. If nothing else, this novel made me believe that there is good in the world. That even in South Carolina, at a tumultuous peak in racism, there were those who accepted people regardless of their skin color. Unfortunately, that (along with the odd religion the women upheld, and their striking love affair with bees) gave it an other-worldly (or perhaps too-good-worldly), fairy tale quality. The writing seemed forced at times, and the ending closed some issues, but left others wide open (and not in a good way). It's the kind of book that leaves you wondering, 'Does he ever get the girl?'