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The Secret Life of Bees

by Sue Monk Kidd

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How does The Secret Life of Bees relate to the tradition of American literature?

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Like any great American novel, The Secret Life of Bees captures the true essence of American life, specifically during the 1960's. The Civil Rights Movement is well under way, and the political climate impacts each character at some point in the novel. As the story unfolds in the South, discrimination and segregation of black Americans is a central theme throughout the novel. Additional themes include loss, love, change, hope, and religion.

Author Sue Monk Kidd writes the descriptive narrative in first person, telling the story from Lily's point of view. Her conversational tone draws the reader in, and her use of humor paints Lily as a witty teenager open to whatever comes her way. Readers feel as though they are right there with the characters as they learn and grow throughout the book.

Quotes from the book that exemplify Monk Kidd's writing style include:
I have noticed that if you look carefully at people's eyes the first five seconds they look at you, the truth of their feelings will shine through for just an instant before it flickers away.

It's funny how you forget the rules. She was not supposed to be inside here. Every time a rumor got going about a group of Negroes coming to worship with us on Sunday morning, the deacons stood locked-arms across the church stems to turn them away. We loved them in the Lord, Brother Gerald said, but they had their own places
The world will give you that once in awhile, a brief timeout; the boxing bell rings and you go to your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life.
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The Secret Life of Bees is certainly a particularly "American" story. There are so many reasons for this, it is difficult to know where to begin.

First, the issue of racism is a prominent issue in the United States, so that alone makes this an American story. The idea of transcending racism is a theme of the novel, and for African-Americans, this is part of the "American Dream."  Notice that Rosaleen gets to vote at the end of the story, a symbol of all that African-Americans had been deprived of historically. Notice also that Lily manages to conquer her own racism by the end of the book, as has June.

Second, the novel is firmly placed in American literature by virtue of the plot elements that are similar to those of Huckleberry Finn, one of the greatest American novels ever written.  In Huckleberry Finn, Huck and Jim run away for the sake of their respective "freedoms," Huck to get away from "civilization" and Jim, to find freedom from slavery.  What do Lily and Rosaleen do?  Lily is running away from the unreasonable discipline imposed by her father, and Rosaleen is looking for the freedom that voting represents for her.  There are other elements that evoke Huckleberry Finn, and you might want to look for more.

Third, the theme of freedom is a powerful theme in American literature, something Americans have been grappling with since the country's founding.  What other great books in American literature explore this theme?

Fourth, the idea that religion can offer solutions to our problems has become an important idea in American literature and politics.  Americans are more religious than people of many other countries, perhaps because we began with religious groups who were trying to be free to practice their own religions.  Notice that Lily and Rosaleen find peace and happiness when they become part of a religious practice that is not an "approved" religion.

There are no doubt many other aspects of The Secret Life of Bees that make it an American novel, but these should certainly be enough to get you started.

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