Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2983
Lily Owens remembers the summer of 1964, when she turned fourteen years old. She begins by describing the way she would wait in her bedroom each night for the arrival of bees. Though these bees are imagined, Lily's emotional attachment to them makes the reader wonder if they might be real. Lily's caretaker, Rosaleen, has told her that bees swarming are an omen of death. Lily is preoccupied with death, since her mother, Deborah, died when Lily was four. She thinks often of the day her mother died and shares the incident, as well as her own guilt, with the reader. She remembers sitting on the floor of the closet as her mother hurriedly packed a suitcase. She remembers her father, T. Ray, coming home and her parents arguing. Then T. Ray shoved Lily, and her mother grabbed a gun from the closet shelf. The gun ended up in T. Ray's hands, then on the floor, then in Lily's hands. Lily remembers the sound of the gun going off. Her mother was dead.
Unpopular in school and unloved by her father, Lily relies only on Rosaleen. She treasures a few objects connected to her mother: a photograph of Deborah, a pair of her white gloves, and a picture of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary mounted on wood, with "Tiburon, S.C." written on the back. She keeps these items buried in a tin box in her father's peach orchard, digging them up and imagining what sort of woman her mother was. Lily remembers that the day before she began first grade, T. Ray told her she had accidentally killed her mother.
On July 2, 1964, Rosaleen is overjoyed to learn President Lyndon Johnson has signed the Civil Rights Act into law. That night, needing to feel close to someone and something, Lily heads for the orchard to dig up her tin box. T. Ray catches her outside, assuming she is meeting a boy. He punishes her in a way Lily particularly hates: by making her kneel on the kitchen floor in a pile of Martha White grits, small grains that cut into her knees.
Lily accompanies Rosaleen to a Fourth of July voter-registration rally in Sylvan. Before she can register, however, Rosaleen attracts the attention of a group of men playing cards. They bait her with racial insults, and she responds by pouring tobacco juice on their shoes. A scuffle results, and Rosaleen is arrested for assault.
The Civil Rights Act has obviously not reached Sylvan, as policeman Avery Gaston allows the locals who attacked Rosaleen to attack her again. Lily is released into T. Ray's custody, but Rosaleen must stay behind. T. Ray tells Lily that Rosaleen will likely be killed by Franklin Posey, a notoriously vicious racist, who is one of the men she offended. Furious at his daughter's actions, T. Ray tells Lily that her devotion to her dead mother is misplaced. Deborah had run away and left her family and, on the day she died, had planned to pack her belongings and leave permanently. Distraught and disbelieving, Lily decides to break Rosaleen out of police custody. As her world crumbles, she needs to be needed and appreciated.
When Lily returns to town, she is told that Rosaleen has been taken to the hospital. She sneaks into Rosaleen's hospital room, where Rosaleen admits she was beaten by Posey and other men. Lily and Rosaleen slip past the guard posted in front of her room. The two hitch a ride with driver of a cantaloupe truck who happens to be traveling to a location near Tiburon, the town noted on the back of the Black Madonna portrait. Since the picture belonged to her mother, Lily decides she will find answers there. Rosaleen and Lily quarrel when Rosaleen realizes Lily left Sylvan to pursue her own interests as much as to save her. They separate briefly but reunite and apologize to each other in a nearby creek.
After spending the night sleeping in the open air, Lily and Rosaleen continue their walk into Tiburon. They come to a general store, where Lily goes to buy food. Behind the counter, she notices jars of Black Madonna Honey, decorated with the familiar image of the dark-skinned Virgin Mary. The store's proprietor tells her the honey is made by a local woman, August Boatwright, whose bright pink house is impossible to miss.
Lily and Rosaleen find August's house. A woman in the front yard is tending to boxes of bees. They are met at the door by August's sisters, June and May. Inside their house, Lily sees a carving of a woman that resembles a ship's masthead. Three feet tall, the woman is mostly black but has a faded red heart painted on her chest. Lily feels immediately drawn to the statue.
When August enters, Lily tells her that she and Rosaleen have run away from home and have no place to go. August immediately offers to let them stay. Lily continues to lie to August, pretending she is an orphan who, with her house-keeper Rosaleen as a chaperone, is headed to a relative's house in Virginia. August seems to accept their story and shows them around her honey-making operation. She offers them two cots in the "honey house" for them to use. The next morning, Lily rises early and surveys the Boatwright property. She discovers a rock wall with slips of paper stuck in its crevices.
A week passes at the Boatwright household. August buys new clothes for Rosaleen, and May and June clean her wounds from her beating. Lily describes the role honey plays in the Boatwrights' life: they eat it, bathe in it, take it as medicine, and make candles from it. Lily enjoys learning how to tend to August's honey-making machinery, and Rosaleen develops a special rapport with May. They learn May is acutely sensitive to the suffering of others. She even leads insects outside the house rather than killing them, which reminds Lily of a similar habit her mother had.
Lily's happiness with the Boatwrights is marred only by June's antipathy to her presence. Lily overhears June and August discussing her; for June, Lily's whiteness makes her particularly objectionable. Lily's self-consciousness is reinforced when she gathers around the television with Rosaleen and the Boatwrights to watch news reports of racially motivated violence. In the evening, the women say prayers in front of the black statue of Mary, which the Boatwright sisters call "Our Lady of Chains."
August lets Lily visit the hives she has stationed around nearby farms and swamps. She shows Lily the queen of one of the hives. One evening Lily asks August about the stone wall in the backyard. August explains that May built the wall as her own personal wailing wall. She tells Lily about their other sister, April, who was May's twin. April struggled with depression after being mistreated by a racist store owner and eventually killed herself at age fifteen. May's hypersensitivity to the misfortunes of the world resulted from the loss of her sister.
Neil, June's longtime suitor, visits the Boatwright household. June seems to love Neil, but because of an earlier disappointment in love, she cannot commit to him. The next day, a small group of Daughters of Mary arrive at the house for their Sunday religious service. August tells the story of Our Lady of Chains: originally a ship's masthead that washed up near a South Carolina plantation, it became a source of strength and inspiration for the plantation slaves. In response, their white masters tried to take the statue away, but fifty times Our Lady escaped and returned to the slaves' praise house without any help. It became known as "Our Lady of Chains" because chains were unable to hold it.
At the end of the service, the Daughters of Mary and Rosaleen touch the heart painted on Mary's chest while June plays her cello. Lily longs to reach out to the statue, but June stops playing when she tries. Again Lily realizes her whiteness sets her apart from the others. She faints, August believes, because of the heat. In fact, Lily was both overheated and overwhelmed by the experience.
August's assistant and godson, Zach Taylor, returns to work. Lily instantly likes the athletic and scholarly young man, and Zach reciprocates. He plans to be a lawyer, although as a black man he is pessimistic about his chances at success. He and Lily have an opportunity to spend a day alone together when August sends them to check on some of her remote hives. Lily is nervous and moody because of her attraction to Zach. Eventually, she breaks down crying, and Zach, confused, comforts her.
When they return to the Boatwrights' home, Lily finds that Rosaleen is moving from the honey house into May's bedroom in the house. June and Neil, nearby in the garden, get into another argument, which ends with Neil leaving and June telling him not to come back. Lily is distracted by the realization that she is falling in love with Zach. Alone at night in the honey house, she looks at herself in the mirror and fantasizes about him. After Zach and Lily work closely together on the honey harvest, he gives her a gift—a notebook, to help her with her aspirations to be a writer—and they share an embrace.
While they put the labels on honey jars, August informs Lily that the picture she uses on the label is one of many Black Madonnas she knows from her mother's Catholic prayer cards. When Lily asks her why she puts the Black Madonna on her honey labels, August remembers how the Daughters of Mary reacted when they first saw the labels: "it occurred to them for the first time in their lives that what's divine can come in dark skin."
August explains how she and her sisters inherited Our Lady of Chains from their mother, whose mother had kept it before that. To August, it represents the presence of Mary in everything. She remembers her grandmother, Big Mama, who first taught her beekeeping and from whom the sisters inherited their property in Tiburon. Lily and August go out on bee patrol together, and August shows Lily some of the bees' secrets: how, for example, each member of the hive has an individual role to play. When August opens one of the hives, the bees swarm over Lily, and she not only feels the ache of losing her mother but also feels comforted by the bees. When the bees settle back in their hives, August tells Lily it is time for them to have a talk, but Lily avoids her by going inside for lunch.
At lunch that day, Zach relates that the town is stirred up over the rumor that actor Jack Palance is coming to Tiburon and bringing an African American woman with him. The locals plan to stand guard in front of the town movie theater. Lily accompanies Zach to town to finish his honey deliveries. At the office of lawyer Clayton Forrest, she uses the office telephone to make a collect call to T. Ray while Zach and Forrest are occupied. T. Ray cannot answer the one question Lily called him to ask: does he know what her favorite color is? That evening Lily writes a letter to T. Ray, raging against him for his meanness, but tears it up. She prays to Our Lady of Chains for consolation and, alone with the statue in the dark, presses her hand to its heart.
In particularly hot weather, August and Lily must go and water the hives. Back at the house, the women play in the sprinkler to beat the heat. When Lily gets in a tug-of-war over the sprinkler with June, the two ultimately share a laugh over the absurdity of their quarrel, a first sign that tensions between them may be thawing. Later, Lily notices May trying to lead a cockroach out of the kitchen instead of killing it, just as Lily's mother used to do. On a hunch, Lily asks if May knew Deborah, and May tells her that Deborah once stayed in the honey house.
Zach invites Lily to drive to town with him, where they find tension developing between white men guarding the movie theater and a group of young black men nearby. As Zach talks to the young men, one of them throws a bottle at the white racists. Zach is arrested with the others when he refuses to reveal which one threw the bottle. At the Boatwright household, the women decide to keep the news from May for fear of upsetting her. May soon finds out, though, and announces that she needs to visit her wall.
When May does not return, August and the other women go outside to search for her. They find her submerged in a nearby creek, a suicide like her twin sister. Later, the police come; they interview Lily, who embellishes the cover story of why she is staying with the Boatwrights. The policeman advises her to leave the Boatwright house soon, since a white girl living in a black household is not natural.
May's body is returned to the Boatwright home, and the women hold a vigil in their living room. Zach returns from jail, anguished that his legal problems provoked May's suicide. August tells him May made her own choice. The Daughters of Mary arrive to participate in the vigil, and Lily finally feels accepted as one of the group. On the second day of the vigil, August finds May's suicide note. In it, May writes that she is "tired of carrying around the weight of the world" and tells her sisters to live. August urges June to follow her sister's advice and marry Neil.
While August and June mourn, Lily is left to read and write. When Zach visits, they continue their flirtation, although since his arrest he has become preoccupied with going to law school and joining the civil rights movement. The women prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption, which they call Mary Day. Neil arrives to propose again, and this time, June accepts. The Mary Day festivities proceed that evening, with the Daughters of Mary performing their own version of Communion and chaining their statue of Mary in the honey house as a reenactment of the original Our Lady of Chains story. That night, Lily tells Zach she worries that he will become hardened by his anger; they share a kiss, and Zach promises Lily that one day they will be together.
Lily decides she can no longer postpone her talk with August. August admits she knew Deborah was Lily's mother all along because of the resemblance between the two of them. She tells Lily that she was the housekeeper for Deborah's family in Virginia. Lily tells August the whole truth, about T. Ray's abuse, Rosaleen's run-in with the law, and, most painfully, the fact that she killed Deborah. August reassures her of the love everyone in the Boatwright household has for her.
August tells Lily more about her mother, who moved from Virginia to South Carolina to be closer to August. She met T. Ray and married him when she became pregnant with Lily. Lily is upset to realize her mother married T. Ray because of her. August tells her that when Deborah left T. Ray, she came to stay with August, without Lily. Feeling abandoned, Lily claims she hates her mother. August admits Deborah made a terrible mistake but tried to make up for it and was returning for Lily when she died.
The next day, the Daughters of Mary remove the statue from the honey house and together lift the chains from it. Then they all, including Lily, anoint the black Mary with honey. After lunch, they wash off the statue and return it to the parlor. August gives Lily a hatbox full of her mother's possessions, including a pin and a picture of Lily with her mother. Looking at the picture, Lily can finally believe her mother loved her.
Lily spends her days by the river, pondering her mother's life. Rosaleen, meanwhile, has decided to finally register to vote. Lily calls Zach, who tells her he plans to attend the white high school at the start of the next school year. August takes her out to the beehives to show her what happens to a hive when the queen has died. She wants Lily to understand that Our Lady of Chains resides inside her and will always be a source of strength.
Lily is alone one afternoon at the Boatwright house when T. Ray shows up. He traced the collect call she made to him. He sees a pin of Deborah's that August gave Lily and recognizes it as the birthday present he gave to his wife years ago. Overwhelmed by memories of Deborah, T. Ray temporarily confuses his daughter for his wife and hits Lily. He recovers his senses but insists she must come home with him, despite her wishes. August returns, flanked by the Daughters of Mary, and when she asks T. Ray to let Lily stay, he relents. Lily chases after T. Ray as he drives off, needing to ask him once more if she truly killed Deborah. T. Ray tells her she did not mean to, but she did pull the trigger. Lily tries to take his leaving her with August as a small sign that he wants what is best for her.
As fall arrives, Lily finds peace in her new life in Tiburon. Forrest works to clear the charges in Sylvan against her and Rosaleen, and she attends high school with Zach, who weathers the taunts of white classmates. Lily keeps May's wall now and prays in front of the Mary each day.
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