Photo: Everett Collection
The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd's best-selling 2002 novel, takes place in South Carolina, where it gets hot enough to make honey drip from the comb. "Sounds a bit cloying for this African-American," I thought, when I first heard of Kidd's tale about a little white girl who flees her home to take refuge with some black women beekeepers. "What's new about black women nursing whites?" I wondered. It sounded like the same tired slog with the noble, dusky-skinned matriarchs whose reward is the label "Auntie" instead of genuine equity they can take to the bank.
Then O asked me to cover the Fox Searchlight film adaptation of Bees, opening in theaters this month, and there was no way around it: I had to read the book.
Once I started, I couldn't put the thing down.
Here's the story, if your memory needs refreshing. It's 1964. The Civil Rights Act has just passed. The only person who loves motherless, 14-year-old Lily (Dakota Fanning) is her caretaker, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). But Rosaleen's attempt to assert her newly enforced right to vote initiates a fracas with racist whites that winds her up in the clink. After Lily springs her, the two go on the lam. Their destination, "Tiburon, S.C.," written on the back of a picture Lily found among her mother's few belongings, turns out to be the location of the Boatwright sisters, August, May, and June (Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, and Alicia Keys, respectively). These beekeeping entrepreneurs, whose business trademark is the Black Madonna, take pity on the fugitives and shelter them. In this household, more is revealed about Lily's deceased mother, and both Lily and Rosaleen begin to heal.
When I found myself in North Carolina last winter, driving the 30 or so miles from Wilmington to the movie set in Watha, the weather was neither hot nor sweet. In fact, the closer I came, the higher this massive bank of fog reared itself up. I could only creep my little car down the road by hewing tight to the shoulder. Finally I saw the flashing blue lights of a police cruiser on my left and the telltale movie trailers on the right; I knew I had found the hive. The Pink House confirmed it. Rising out of the mist like some antebellum drunk dream, it sported bracing white shutters and that staple of Southern architecture, the four-columned porch. The paint job on the house itself was a doozy—the book describes it as "Pepto-Bismol"—and I later learned they had to paint it three times before they got it right.