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Literature / The Secret Life of Bees

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The Secret Life of Bees is a 2002 novel by Sue Monk Kidd.

Lily Owens is a fourteen-year-old girl who lives under the care of her abusive father T-Ray. She's constantly tormented by her blurred memory of the day that her mother died, and desperately wishes to know what really happened. When Rosaleen, a former orchard worker who T-Ray promoted to Lily's nanny and general housekeeper, is arrested and beaten just for being black, Lily is horrified when T.Ray casually mentions that the man who did it will come back and finish the job.

Threatened with losing Rosaleen and being severely punished by T.Ray for standing up for her, Lily decides that now is the time for her to finally leave her home, and find out what really happened to her mother. She breaks Rosaleen out of the hospital, and the two head for Tiburon, a town written on the back of one of Lily's mother's possessions.


There Lily meets the Boatwright sisters, three black women who are determined to make their mark on the world, despite the prejudice of 1950s America. Beekeeper August, the oldest sister, takes to Lily, and teaches her not only how to take care of the bees, but several important life lessons as well.

A movie based on the novel was released in 2008, starring Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, and Alicia Keys.


This novel provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: T. Ray. is both physically and emotionally abusive towards Lily, often making her kneel on grits for hours at the slighted provocation.
  • Accidental Murder: As a child, Lily witnessed her parents fighting, and when they dropped a gun, Lily picked it up and it went off, killing Lily's mother.
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Lily has black hair in the novel, but is played by blonde Dakota Fanning in the movie. Her mom has black hair as well - they have a Strong Family Resemblance - and thus is blonde in the film as well.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Lily and August decide to have Coke with peanuts in them for dessert one night. Some thought this was a shared quirk between Lily, her mother, and August, since June's response was that of disgust. However, Coke with peanuts in it is actually a thing people do in the Deep South.
  • Animal Motifs: Bees. Bees are said to be hard workers who work together in harmony underneath their mother, the Queen Bee. Many parallels are made to the hardworking Boatwright sisters and their attempt to make a mark on the world despite the colour of their skin holding them back, all while united underneath the Virgin Mary's watchful eye.
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: May. It's ultimately subverted when May commits suicide.
  • Bookworm: August is incredibly well read, and is often seen with a book in hand when she isn't working. She even tells Lily that while growing up, her mother would allow her and her sisters to forgo chores and do and eat whatever they like during the month that they're named after. August spent the entire time reading.
  • Broken Pedestal: Lily towards her mother in the later chapters of the novel, when T. Ray turns out to have been right about Lily's mother leaving her. She gets over this, though.
  • Calling Parents by Their Name: Lily refers to her abusive father as "T.Ray".
  • Coming-of-Age Story: For Lily, who starts out as a young girl who dreams of finding her mother and seeing the world beyond the four walls of her bedroom, envying the bees who are able to go wherever they please. Lily also learns that she's quite prejudice towards black people, even if it's subconsciously, which is something she quickly overcomes on getting to know the Boatwright sisters.
  • Consummate Liar:
    • Lily is quite talented at lying, she's certainly quick at thinking up things on the spot. Her lies are only ever seen through by the worldly and wise August, who admittedly has the upper hand because she knows who Lily ''really' is from the moment she shows up on her doorstep.
    • Rosaleen is also pretty quick off the mark when it comes to telling a tale, and can easily keep up with Lily if they're forced to make up something on the spot.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: June is very cold towards Lily to start with, but gradually warms up to her once she gets to know her better. Turns out it's because Lily greatly resembles her mother, who June still holds a grudge against.
  • Driven to Suicide: May's twin sister, April, committed suicide when she was fifteen. May eventually ends up taking her own life as well.
  • Heroic BSoD:
    • Lily has a temporary one after talking with August about her mother and learning that her mother left her behind when she ran away. She gets out of it after talking with August some more and finding out that her mother came back on the day of her death to get her.
    • May after she finds out about Zach being arrested. It does not end well.
  • I Am Not Pretty: Lily seems to think she's pretty average, and hopes that she'll become prettier when she's older. However she seems to have no issues attracting boys, given that both Zach and his friends are implied to find her very attractive.
  • I Choose to Stay: Lily chooses to stay with Rosaleen and the Boatwright sisters at the end of the novel, standing up to T. Ray once he comes back to retrieve her.
  • Kill the Cutie: The sweet May commits suicide after Zach is arrested.
  • Maybe Ever After: For Lily and Zach. They admit they're attracted to each other, but the fact that they're in the South in the sixties does them no favors. Zach promises that one day when the world is different, they can get together then.
  • Meaningful Name: Zach is named for president Zachary Taylor.
  • Missing Mom: Lily's mother died when she was four. Because Lily accidentally killed her while her parents were fighting.
  • Mood Whiplash: Lily is starting to settle in with the Boatwright sisters, June has warmed up to her, May has confirmed that Lily's mother did stay there some time ago and hasn't had one of her 'episodes' for a very long time. Then Zach is arrested for something he didn't even do, and May kills herself when she finds out, having had enough of living in such an awful world.
  • Parental Neglect: T. Ray toward Lily. He is a distant father, emotionally and physically.
  • Parental Substitute: Rosaleen to Lily from the beginning of the novel. And eventually the Boatwright sisters as well.
  • Pet the Dog: When T. Ray talks to Lily about her mother's death right before she starts kindergarten, Lily remembers that he "almost sounded kind" when speaking to her, and although he quickly loses his temper, the conversation remains surprisingly soft for him.
    • He also genuinely thanks the neighbor who cares for Lily in the months after Deborah's departure and death, saying that they wouldn't have gotten by without her help.
    • Eventually, he also allows Lily to stay in Tiburon instead of taking her back with him.
  • Promotion to Parent: August and June are this for the emotionally vulnerable May. While it's never quite stated if May genuinely has some sort of disorder, it's clear that she relies on her sisters to take care of her, especially during her 'episodes'.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Lily and Zach, who are unable to act on their feelings for one other due to the racial barriers between them.
  • Self-Made Woman: August Boatwright. There's only ONE black business in town and it's hers.
  • The '60s: The book takes place in South Carolina during 1964.
  • Strong Family Resemblance: Lily bears a striking resemblance to her mother, so much that it leads T. Ray to vent his frustrations with Deborah on Lily for several years and eventually see her as the living incarnation of her mother during a trance at the end of the novel.
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: June, who has a difficult time warming up to Lily when they first meet due to her resentment of her mother.
  • Tell Me About My Mother: much of the story focuses on Lily wanting to learn more about her mother on her quest to find her.
  • Temporal Theme Naming: The Boatwright sisters are all named for months: August, June, May, and May's deceased twin April.
  • Tender Tears: May, the most sensitive of the Boatwright sisters by far, because of her trauma.
  • The Cutie: May, who retained a sweet, childlike innocence well into her adult years.
  • Where Da White Women At?: Lily and Zach develop a mutual attraction, but are extremely hesitant to act on it because they know it would likely get Zach killed. Their relationship ultimately does not materialize beyond one kiss, but Zach promises that they will be together one day.
  • You're Not My Father: Lily cannot bring herself to call T. Ray her father for much of the novel, since she feels he "isn't exactly the Daddy type. Only towards the end of the novel does she finally call T. Ray "Daddy", although this was done in order to snap him out of his trance.


Example of: