“Everyone needs a God who looks like them.” ~August, The Secret Life of Bees.
It’s a book that could have failed, considering its thorny subjects—racism, child abuse, and maternal loss.
Yet it sold more than six million copies and spent a hundred weeks on the New York Times best seller list. In 2008, it was adapted to the big screen with Queen Latifah and Dakota Fanning.
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (b. 1948) was her fiction début, published at age 53. Sue’s own surprising spiritual journey brought it into being.
The Dissident Daughter
Sue Monk Kidd lived one of those perfect, small town, southern childhoods (except for the swarm of bees in the walls of her 100-year-old house).
She could walk to the drugstore and charge a cherry Coke to her father. Or to Empire Mercantile and charge a pair of cheerleader socks to her mom. By the time she got home, her parents would know what color socks she’d bought and what size Coke she’d drunk.
But the 1964 Civil Rights Movement changed Sue’s idyll forever. Her high school class became the first to integrate. She was 16 and old enough to understand racism’s cruelty. It stayed with her.
In 1970, Sue earned a B.S. in Nursing from Texas Christian University. She worked as nurse, met her husband, Sanford (Sandy), a Baptist minister, and had two children.
In her 30s, she left nursing for full-time mothering, taught Sunday School, and wrote inspirational essays for Guideposts Christian magazine. They led to her first memoir, God’s Joyful Surprise, published at age 40.
Then a friend introduced her to feminist spiritual thought. Over the next several years, she embraced the divine feminine and joined the Episcopal Church, which ordains women.
Her vocation as a Christian writer ended and her life as a Baptist minister’s wife came under fire from all sides. But Sandy stood by her and (not surprisingly) became a psychotherapist. “In the end,” she says, “my husband went through his own deep changes and here we are.”
At age 48, Sue wrote The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine. She realized
…that my creative life is my deepest prayer. That I must pray from my heart, from my soul. Not from my head or my need for security or approval or to gain some sort of repute.
The Secret Life of Bees
Exploring the divine feminine inspired Sue’s desire to “express myself in ways native to my own soul.”
I thought I would go on writing only nonfiction the rest of my life. Ah, but never underestimate the power of a dismissed dream. I think there must be a place inside of us where dreams go and wait their turn.
Here’s a quick synopsis:
In 1964 South Carolina, Lily Melissa Owens, age 14, lives with her cruel and aloof father. Lily’s mother Deborah died from a gunshot wound when Lily was four. The authorities ruled it an accident because Lily was found holding the gun.
One day, Lily accompanies her beloved black housekeeper Rosaleen to town, where Rosaleen intends to register to vote.
A gang of bullies tries to stop them and Rosaleen spits chewing tobacco on the leader’s shoe. The two end up in jail. Lily’s father takes her home, but says that the gang leader will kill Rosaleen even if she apologizes. Lily breaks Rosaleen out and they run away.
They’re adopted by a trio of black sisters, August, May and June, who live in a bright pink house and raise bees. Lily’s past unravels among the sisters, and she finds the true meaning of home.
The Creative Process
To write The Secret Life of Bees, Sue relied on character studies, scene diagrams, and a structure notebook. But she also wanted to “conjure that infectious magic” that flows into the most memorable stories.
So she created a collage of vivid, imaginative images: a pink house, a trio of African-American women, a wailing wall. She kept it above her writing desk like a treasure map, adding more images as they came to her. Her writing emerged from the collage.
Sue Monk Kidd’s spiritual journey took her from a nursing career to a deep and personal faith. It helped her to craft a magical tale, one that pays tribute to love, hardship, and the ineffable spirit.
She often recounts this anecdote: One day, a student approached Carl Jung with a problem. “Professor, could you please tell me the shortest distance to my life goal?”
Without hesitation Jung replied, “The detour.”
More About Sue Monk Kidd
- Sue Monk Kidd’s web is one of the best author sites around.
- This Book Browser interview provided most of the biographical information.
- I also enjoyed this CBS Seattle audio interview with Sue.
(The opening image, Landscape with a Pink House (1910) by Ukrainian artist David Burliak reminded me of the sisters’ house in The Sacred Life of Bees.)