Lily Owens has always had a weird fascination with bees. While most people would be freaked out by hearing bees swarming inside their bedroom wall or seeing them fly around the room, Lily feels a bond with the tiny critters. When life with her father becomes intolerable, she and her black nanny Rosaleen strike out on the road. They end up staying with three elderly sisters who tend bees and sell honey for a living. It feels like home to Lily, and she takes to bee-keeping like a duck to water.
The story takes place in 1964, the height of the Civil Rights era. Lily doesn’t fully understand how bad it is for black people, but she gets a taste of their trials when Rosaleen is arrested while trying to become a registered voter in South Carolina.
Although Lily doesn’t think a person’s race and Civil Rights are that big a deal, the subject is always hovering in the background. She is focused on a search to find out more about her mother, who has been dead since she was a small child. On her way to discover her mother’s story, Rosaleen and the three bee-keeping sisters become surrogate mothers to her.
Excerpt from Chapter 8 (pages 154-155):
“June made a pffff sound with her her lips while August shook her head, and it washed over me for the first time in my life just how much importance the world had ascribed to skin pigmentation, how lately it seemed that skin pigment was the sun and everything else in the universe was the orbiting planets. Ever since school let out this summer, it had been nothing but skin pigment every livelong day. I was sick of it
In Sylvan we’d had a rumor at the first of the summer about a busload of people from New York City showing up to integrate the city pool. Talk about a panic. We had a citywide emergency on our hands, as there is no greater affliction for the southern mind than people up north coming down to fix our way of life. After that was the whole mess with the men at the Esso station. It seemed to me it would have been better if God had deleted skin pigment altogether.”