Last Updated on August 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1533
August Boatwright is the oldest of three sisters who live together in the town of Tiburon, South Carolina. August raises bees and sells their honey. The picture of the Black Madonna on the label of her honey jars leads Lily and Rosaleen to her home. As a young woman, August was housekeeper to the family of Lily's mother, Deborah, who shortly before her death lived with the Boatwright sisters in Tiburon when she left Lily's father. August is the head of the Boatwright household and also the leader of the small group of worshipers of Our Lady of Chains, a ship's masthead that became a symbol of the Virgin Mary and of resistance to slavery. The statue and its story, as well as their bright pink house and the beehives, are all inheritances from August's grand-mother, Big Mama. August's spiritual beliefs and general outlook on life are influenced greatly by her beekeeping. She is also an avid reader, whose bedroom is filled with books about beekeeping, mythology, and the Virgin Mary. She tells Lily that though she had once been in love, she had loved her freedom too much to marry. By the end of the novel, she has become a mother figure to Lily, having taken the teenager into her home, fed and nurtured her, enrolled her in school, and bought her new clothes and furniture.
June Boatwright is the middle Boatwright sister. She plays her cello in the hospital rooms and homes of local people dying of terminal diseases, but is guarded with her emotions. She is a teacher who has never been able to commit to her longtime suitor, Neil, because a fiancé left her at the altar when she was a young woman. Unlike her sisters, June initially resents the presence of Lily in the Boatwright household. She reacts badly when Lily, a white girl, reaches out to touch Our Lady of Chains during one of the group's services. Eventually she comes to accept Lily, however. After May's suicide, and with August's encouragement, June finally agrees to Neil's marriage proposal.
May Boatwright is the youngest Boatwright sister. Ever since the death of her twin sister, April, by suicide, May has been morbidly sensitive to the suffering of others. Watching the evening news broadcast, for example, leads to her sobbing and tearing at her hair. Her sisters try to protect her from any bad news that might upset her. As a form of therapy, May has built herself a wailing wall in the woods behind the Boatwright house; when distraught, she writes a prayer for the afflicted on a slip of paper and inserts it between the rocks of her wall. She is against hurting any living thing, and her habit of leading bugs outside instead of killing them suggests to Lily that her mother had once been in the Boatwright house. Despite her sisters' attempts to shield her, she is devastated by the news that Zach has been arrested. She commits suicide by using a heavy rock to pin herself under the water of a nearby stream.
Rosaleen Daise is an African American woman, around fifty years old (according to Lily she gives differing years for her birth dates), who was promoted by T. Ray Owens from field hand to caretaker of his daughter, Lily, after the death of Lily's mother. A large, assertive woman, Rosaleen threw out an unreliable husband years ago, steals fans from a church on a hot day when the minister is too stingy to give them to her, and stands up to racists who jeer her when she attempts to register to vote. She is arrested and beaten while in police custody; once Lily helps her escape, the two of them are compelled to leave town on the journey that takes them to Tiburon. Although she is initially suspicious of the Boatwrights' pink house, Rosaleen is readily accepted into their circle. She develops a particularly close relationship with May Boatwright, sharing May's bedroom that May once shared with her twin sister, April. Despite grumbling over Lily's behavior sometimes, Rosaleen is a loyal friend to the young woman and keeps her secrets until Lily is ready to come clean. After she and Lily establish themselves in Tiburon, Rosaleen finally gets her voter registration and proudly announces her intention to vote for President Lyndon Johnson's reelection.
Clayton Forrest is a lawyer who sells jars of August's honey to his clients. He has taken an informal interest in Zach's legal aspirations and accepts visits from the young man in his law office. He comes to Zach's aid after he is arrested, and his daughter, Becca, becomes a friend of Lily's. He also works to clear up Lily and Rosaleen's legal troubles in Sylvan.
Avery "Shoe" Gaston
Avery Gaston is the policeman who arrests Rosaleen and drives her and Lily to the police station. Despite being an officer of the law, Gaston allows racist thugs to beat Rosaleen while she is in his custody.
Brother Gerald is the minister at Lily's church, Ebenezer Baptist Church. He displays a notable lack of Christian charity: he disapproves of Lily bringing a black woman, Rosaleen, into the church when they need a rest during their walk to Sylvan, and denies them fans to keep themselves cool. He attempts to press charges when Rosaleen takes two fans anyway.
Neil is the long-suffering suitor to June Boatwright, who refuses to marry him because a previous suitor left her at the altar. Neil first tries to break things off with June, but during the celebration of Mary Day, he proposes one more time. June, whose outlook on life has been changed by May's suicide, finally accepts.
Lily Owens, the narrator of the novel, is fourteen years old and lives with her father, T. Ray, on his peach farm in the small town of Sylvan, South Carolina. Haunted by the death of her mother and abused by her brutish father, Lily runs off with her caretaker, Rosaleen, led only by a picture of a Black Madonna somehow connected to her late mother. Lily yearns for the nurturing maternal figure she never had, which she finds in August Boatwright. She is also conscious of becoming a young woman, particularly in her romantic interest in August's assistant, Zach Taylor. Although Lily can sometimes be self-absorbed to the extent of not appreciating the difficulties other characters are facing, she shows courage and loyalty to Rosaleen in helping her escape from vengeful racists. Under the care of August and the healthful effects of honey and working outdoors, Lily begins to blossom into womanhood. She is drawn to the worship of Our Lady of Chains as a way to fill the emptiness she feels inside, although initially she is too self-conscious to touch the statue except by herself late at night. Over the course of the novel, Lily finds the motherly love she has been lacking and, more importantly, understands that a nurturing, feminine spirit already resides within her. She is thus able to begin to forgive herself for the guilt she feels over her mother's death, as well as forgive her mother for abandoning her.
T. Ray Owens
T. Ray Owens is the father of Lily Owens. A peach farmer, T. Ray is a strict, uncaring, and frequently abusive father. His favorite punishment is making Lily kneel in a pile of Martha White dry grits, and he administers it with little provocation. Lily's only memory of her dead mother is inextricably intertwined with T. Ray's violent temper; Lily's mother drew a gun to protect her daughter and herself from his assaults, only to be shot accidentally in the struggle. Since his wife's death, T. Ray shows affection only to his hunting dog, Snout. When T. Ray catches up to Lily in Tiburon, she realizes he loved her mother and was embittered by losing her. Facing a daughter who has come to resemble her mother, T. Ray briefly hallucinates that she is Deborah. He comes to his senses but is unrepentant in his bitterness. Lily tries to construe his consent to let her stay in Tiburon with August and Rosaleen as a last, unprecedented act of kindness toward her.
Franklin Posey, according to T. Ray Owens, is Sylvan's most notorious racist. When Rosaleen pours the juice from her snuff jug on his shoes, Posey resorts to brutal tactics to make her apologize.
Zach Taylor is August Boatwright's godson and assistant at her beekeeping business. An academically gifted teenager, Zach develops romantic feelings toward Lily, which, considering he is black and Lily is white, could have dangerous consequences for him. After Zach is arrested for being present when an acquaintance of his throws a bottle at a group of white men, he is strengthened in his resolve to become a lawyer and join the civil rights movement. As a first step, he attends the formerly segregated local high school with Lily at the start of the new school year. He promises Lily that one day, when social circumstances are different and he has made a name for himself, they will be together.