The Secret Life of Bees: A Reflection
This year the incoming freshman class was asked to read Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, a coming-of-age novel set in the deep south during the summer of 1964. Faculty, staff, resident assistants, and anyone else who wanted to lead a discussion was given a free copy of the book and invited to participate. I don’ t know whether the students were given free copies as well.
Today (whoops — yesterday; it’s after midnight as I blog this) I sat at a table with a few students I recognized and many I didn’t. While some of the other freshman seminar teachers were taking attendance at the book discussion, I didn’t — I’d rather trust my students.
After spending a few minutes dragging comments out of my tablemates, I asked who had actually read the book. Everyone at the table pointed to one student, who admitted (confessed?) that yes, she had actually read the whole book — though she didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about when I mentioned “catholicism”. The room was noisy, so it’s possible she simply couldn’t hear what I was saying; still, it kind of threw me for a loop when here we are at a Catholic school, one of the central images in the novel (besides bees, of course) is a picture of the Black Madonna, and the central characters have concocted for themselves a sort of folk Mary-worship that is pretty much a parody of what all good Southern Baptists are taught to fear from those scary, statue-worshiping papists.
The other students at my table had at least started the book, and most did contribute when asked… one even said her mother had a black nanny, which surprised me; all the students were from the midwest or northeast, so the Deep South setting of the novel didn’t seem to resonate very strongly with them. Still, they all seemed intelligent and I liked the chance to get to know them. I did feel a little bummed when nobody from my breakout table contributed to the lively all-group discussion.
During that closing event some polite and well-spoken male students called the book “girly”, resulting in some lively but good-natured gender friction. Since Seton Hill has only officially been a co-ed school for two years now, I’d rather see a book that emphasizes gender. And, while the book presented a cross-racial teen romance and presented white males as a pretty vicious and ugly lot, Lily (the protagonist) is so likable, and the novel presents such a hopeful image of female racial harmony, that I did think it was well worth reading and discussing.
I did find it hard to accept that the novel is supposed to have been written by a 14-year-old girl. Passages in which the first-person narrator refers to “snot and boogers” are appropriately adolescent, but other passages are clearly an adult woman reflecting on youth from a great distance. It didn’t bother me too much, until the last chapter, which has passages written in the present tense (suggesting that Lily has just finished scribbling what I’m reading, not that the manuscript has been carefully constructed from memories and edited and crafted to perfection). Samuel Clemens uses much the same conceit in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even though Huck is supposed to have been illiterate just a year before. Maybe that’s just a convention of books with adolescent narrators.