Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Is it ever not going to be problematic to have a book about a young white girl finding nurturing black mother figures in the South? It's not the book itself, necessarily, just the part where this is practically a genre unto itself, and I haven't run into any books (certainly not with the stature of this one) about the young girl in the South who is black, and her experiences. Also bothersome is that the black women are mostly there to mother the young white girl, and all of their differences tend to come down to eccentricities.

This is probably unduly harsh. The Secret Life of Bees is not a bad book - it's an easy read, it's a comfortable read, even in its portrayal of the impact of the Civil Rights movement on a small town that is interacting with it mostly through the media. It's just the overall impact of the stories authors are choosing to tell, that publishers are choosing to publish, and readers are choosing to read.

Does someone have something to recommend to me that breaks out of this mold?

Lily is the only daughter of an unloving white man. Her mother died when she was very little. She and Rosaleen, the black woman who raised her after her mother's death hit the road after an altercation between Rosaleen and the biggest racists in town. They find themselves in a small town in South Carolina, where they are both more or less adopted into the family of three black women, sisters, August, June, and May.

Lily struggles with how to tell the sisters who she really is and why she's there, as well as anger and guilt about her mother and father. Meanwhile, the sisters nurture. August takes care of the bees and takes Lily under her wing. June, a school teacher, refuses to marry the man she loves. May feels the horrors of the world far too sharply. Other black women come to their house for their own brand of syncretic worship, focusing around a statue of a Black Virgin Mary.

This book deals with some fairly difficult issues, so why do I categorize it as not particularly challenging? It deals with abuse, suicide, racism, and violence. None of those are easy topics. And yet, this book never reached out and grabbed me by the throat. It seemed to dance over these topics, not ignoring them, but not fully engaging with them either. It lacked anger, and some of these issues deserved some anger. (There were angry characters, but they were mediated by the nurturing aura of the book itself.)

I think part of the problem was that every time I picked it up, I kept pulling away from it, wondering why we so often seem to need this mediating figure of the young white woman in order to tell these stories. Wondering where the books about just August, and June, and May were. Or Rosaleen. Are they not being written? Or not published? Or am I just entirely oblivious to a bunch of books I should be reading?

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