A tale of love and loss, sisterhood and trauma, Sue Monk Kidd's 2002 novel The Secret Life of Bees has won the hearts of millions of readers around the world. But few know the full truth behind this inspirational novel.
1. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES IS A BILDUNGSROMAN.
A bildungsroman is a novel that charts the moral or psychological growth of its protagonist. It's also known as a coming-of-age story. In this case, Kidd's novel follows the journey of its narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Lily Melissa Owens. After escaping her abusive father T. Ray, Lily finds solace with the beekeeping Boatwright sisters, and confronts the terrible truth about her mother's death.
2. THE NOVEL TACKLES RACE RELATIONS IN THE 1960S.
Set in South Carolina during the civil rights movement, The Secret Life of Bees presents examples of overt racism. In one scene, a trio of white men harasses Lily's mother-figure Rosaleen Daise, who is black. At the same time, the novel challenges pernicious racial stereotypes. Before meeting the Boatwrights, Lily, who is white, assumes all black women are uneducated laborers or maids like Rosaleen. Through her time with the sisters, who are accomplished business owners, the novel's heroine recognizes her own prejudices, and grows to realize her ignorance.
3. ASPECTS OF LILY'S CHILDHOOD MIRRORED KIDD'S OWN.
Upon the novel's 10th anniversary, Kidd offered a long list of autobiographical elements that can be found within The Secret Life of Bees. "Both Lily and I were adolescents during the summer of 1964, and like Lily, I was powerfully affected by the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the racial unrest that fomented during those hot, volatile months," she wrote on her website. "I, too, had an African-American caretaker. I, too, wanted to be a writer ... Lily and I created fallout shelter models for our 7th-grade science projects and wrote papers called 'My Philosophy of Life' before either of us were old enough to have a philosophy." Kidd clarifies, however, that she did not lose her mother when she was a child and her father was "nothing like T. Ray."
4. KIDD VISITED HONEYHOUSES AND BEEHIVES WHEN SHE WAS WRITING THE NOVEL.
"Some of those scenes where Lily is experiencing that rush of feeling and emotion when the bees come swirling out of their hives, I could never have gotten that from a book," the author told BookPage. "The fear and delight of all that and the sounds of it … the way your feet stick to the floor in a honeyhouse … the senses are alive in all of that experience."
5. BEES WERE A BIG PART OF KIDD'S CHILDHOOD.
In one way, Kidd lived in a honeyhouse of her own. "When I was growing up, bees lived inside a wall of our house, an entire hive-full of them—that is to say, 50,000 or so. They lived with us, not for a summer or two, but for 18 years," Kidd wrote on her website. "The room vibrated with bee hum. At times, the whole house seemed to hum. I remember my mother cleaning up the honey that leaked from the cracks and made tiny puddles on the floor. Being a good Southern family, we normalized the situation and went on with our lives."
6. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES WAS KIDD'S FIRST NOVEL, BUT NOT HER FIRST BOOK.
Ahead of The Secret Life of Bees, the Georgia-born author wrote three books about aspects of Christianity: God's Joyful Surprise (1988), When The Heart Waits (1990), and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996). It wasn’t until she was in her forties that Kidd shifted her focus to fiction, beginning with short stories. The Secret Life of Bees came out in 2002, when Kidd was 53 years old.
7. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES HAS A SPIRITUAL CONNECTION TO KIDD'S EARLIER BOOKS.
The novel includes Christian iconography, notably the Black Madonna that adorns the Boatwrights' honey jars. Its coming-of-age plot also touches on spiritual awakening. As Kidd said in the 2002 interview with BookPage, "I think of it as something deeper and more profound happening to [Lily] at the level of soul, and I wanted her to have a real transformation and a real awakening … to this other realm."
8. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES'S MEMORABLE MARY FIGUREHEAD WAS BASED ON A REAL ONE IN A MUSEUM.
In the novel, a religious service is held before a statue called Black Mary or Our Lady of Chains, which is the figurehead of a ship that carries a great significance to the Daughters of Mary, a group of women who follow a religion invented by August Boatwright. Kidd had seen a similar figurehead while visiting a Trappist monastery in South Carolina. "The day that I discovered her," Kidd said, "I was totally captivated by … the powerful imagery of this [figurehead] Mary that was surfacing from the deep, washing up from the deep, onto the shores of consciousness, so to speak."
9. THE BOATWRIGHT SISTERS REPRESENT A CELEBRATION OF FEMALE FRIENDSHIP AND SORORITY.
On her website, Kidd tells the story of how she came up with the Boatwright sisters' characters and setting. She had woken up in the middle of the night thinking about where Rosaleen and Lily were going to end up after escaping T. Ray. She picked up a selection of photos that she had hoped would spark creativity. "My eyes wandered back and forth between pictures of three African-American women, an uproariously pink house, a cloud of bees, and a black Mary, and suddenly, it fell in one unbroken piece into my head," she wrote. "My two runaways would escape to the home of three black sisters, who live in a pink house, keep bees, and revere a black Mary. This sudden revelation may have happened in part because down deep I wanted a way to write about the strength, wisdom, and bonds of women."
10. KIDD WAS INSPIRED BY TWO CLASSICS OF AMERICAN LITERATURE.
The Secret Life of Bees won applause for its insightful look into the inner lives of its female characters. It may be no surprise that its author says reading the groundbreaking feminist novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin, published in 1899, made a big impact on her. Kidd also cites Henry David Thoreau's Walden, the 1854 transcendentalist treatise on simplicity and self-reliance. When she read each book, Kidd told Scholastic, "I would say they were turning points in my life, but also I can look back and say they affected me deeply as a writer."
11. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES WAS A RUNAWAY HIT.
The novel spent more than two-and-a-half years on The New York Times bestseller list and more than 8 million copies of the book have been sold worldwide. It has also been translated into 36 languages.
12. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES ALSO EARNED CRITICAL ACCLAIM.
Many reviewers praised Kidd's beautifully rendered characters and setting. "Lily is a wonderfully petulant and self-absorbed adolescent, and Kidd deftly portrays her sense of injustice as it expands to accommodate broader social evils," The New York Times Book Review wrote. "August and her sisters, June and May, are no mere vehicles for Lily's salvation; they are individuals as fully imagined as the sweltering, kudzu-carpeted landscape that surrounds them."
In deeming the novel "buzz-worthy," People wrote, "populated with rich, believable characters and propelled by a swiftly paced plot, this debut novel is a cut above most coming-of-age tales."
The Secret Life of Bees was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women's Prize for Fiction) in 2002, and won the American Booksellers Association's Book Sense Paperback of the Year award in 2004.
13. THE NOVEL WAS MADE INTO A STAR-STUDDED MOVIE.
Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed Love & Basketball and other features, adapted The Secret Life Of Bees into a period drama. The cast included Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, Oscar nominees Queen Latifah and Sophie Okonedo, multiple Grammy winner Alicia Keys, and Dakota Fanning as Lily.
Kidd visited the film set in a tiny North Carolina town and marveled at how every detail of the production was just as she had imagined it. But months later, when she sat down in the movie theater to watch the film for the first time, she felt nervous. "I had no idea what I would see. I’d glibly said that handing over my novel to Hollywood had seemed like leaping out of an airplane, but sitting there waiting for the film to begin, it really did seem that way," Kidd wrote on her website. "The parachute opened, thankfully, and the whole thing floated rather nicely to earth."
14. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES HAS BEEN ADAPTED INTO A STAGE MUSICAL.
As part of Vassar College's Powerhouse Theater's summer season in 2017, the college and New York Stage and Film presented a workshop production of The Secret Life of Bees as a musical, which starred Orange is the New Black standout Uzo Aduba in the role of Rosaleen. The show featured music from Tony winner Duncan Sheik and a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage.
15. KIDD REALIZED THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES WAS BIG WHEN IT WAS FEATURED ON JEOPARDY!.
Under the category "Women Writers," the long-running quiz show offered this answer: “Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel is about these insects.” Kidd recalled that moment on her website: "I blinked at the television. Finally, I came to life and shouted, 'What are bees?' Fortunately, the contestant did not need my help."