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Book Review

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

In 1964, 14-year-old Lily Owens lives with her abusive father, T. Ray, on a peach farm just outside Sylvan, South Carolina. Lily’s mother, Deborah, is dead — accidentally shot by Lily 10 years ago. Ostracized by her classmates and wracked by guilt, Lily’s closest relationship is with Rosaleen, the quick-tempered but loving African-American maid who raised her.

After watching President Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act into law, Rosaleen decides to go into town to register vote. Lily goes with her. A group of white men mock and aggressively attempt to intimidate Rosaleen, who responds by pouring the contents of her snuff container on their shoes. The men react violently, pinning her to the ground and beating her. When the police arrive, Rosaleen is arrested.

After her arrest, Rosaleen is further brutalized under the supervision of a racist police officer. Lily visits Rosaleen in the hospital and helps her escape. Lily decides to head to the nearby town of Tiburon because of a photo that depicts Mary, the mother of Jesus, as black. The photo, which Lily found with her mother’s possessions, has the town’s name written on the back.

Once in Tiburon, they learn that the photo is a logo for a local beekeeping operation owned by the Boatwright sisters, August, June and May. August allows Lily and Rosaleen to stay in their honey house in return for assistance with daily chores.

Lily, the only white person at the beekeeping operation, works processing honey with fellow employee and aspiring lawyer Zach Lincoln. She participates in the Boatwrights’ religious rituals that center around a statue of Mary that they keep in the parlor. Shielded from the outside world and feeling safe and accepted for the first time in her life, Lily embraces her new work as an apprentice beekeeper.

Lily and Zach become friends, and he encourages her to pursue her writing. She eventually wins over June, who was hostile to her at first, and learns from May that her mother had stayed there before her. She begins to process her feelings about T. Ray and tries to work up the courage to tell August the truth about herself.

Lily’s peaceful dream world is shattered when Zach is arrested for protecting a friend who bloodied a man’s nose. May, a childlike soul who is deeply distressed by other people’s pain, is overcome by the news and commits suicide. Zach is eventually released, and after the mourning period for May has passed, Lily finally tells August her real name. She is shocked to learn that August knew who she was all along.

August, who used to work as a housekeeper, helped raise Deborah and stayed in touch with her after she grew up. August explains to Lily that shortly before her mother’s death, Deborah was depressed and in the middle of a nervous breakdown. She temporarily abandoned Lily to T. Ray’s care while she sought solace and recovery with the Boatwright sisters.

She was killed when she returned to retrieve Lily and seek a divorce from T. Ray. At first, Lily is angry, but eventually comes to terms with the less-than-perfect truth about her mother. She looks to Mary as a substitute.

T. Ray finally tracks down Lily at the Boatwrights’ place, physically assaults her and demands that she return home with him. But August and a number of other women known as the Daughters of Mary because of their participation in the Boatwrights’ religious services, stand up for her. T. Ray reluctantly allows Lily to stay.

Before he leaves, Lily asks if it’s true that she is responsible for her mother’s death. T. Ray confirms that yes, although it was accidental, Lily is the one who pulled the trigger. Lily continues her beekeeper apprenticeship. She and Zach attend high school together. Lily reflects that she, the formerly motherless girl, now has more mothers than anyone.

Christian Beliefs

The Boatwright sisters are Catholic, and every night they say personal prayers. Lily says that in her Baptist church, Mary was only mentioned at Christmas. Instead of going to church, the Boatwright sisters lead a service with a group of women (and one man) called the Daughters of Mary. The Daughters of Mary hold a communion service using honey cakes.

Bees are associated with spiritual rebirth. August tells Lily that the early Christians used to carve bees into the walls of the catacombs as a reminder of the promise of the resurrection.

Lily imagines meeting her mother in heaven and asking for forgiveness. She wonders whether she will go to heaven or hell. If she ever meets God, she plans to ask Him why He made such a mess of creation. Later, after hearing August talk about her mother, Lily becomes very angry with God. She wishes she could knock Him off His throne, but throws jars of honey instead.

T. Ray, despite being a regular church attender for 40 years, becomes increasingly abusive. Lily prays that God will do something about him. T. Ray and Lily attend a Baptist church. Lily’s church gives its members a plastic glove with five steps of salvation written on it so they can witness to a Catholic in case they happen to meet one.

There are a number of Baptist and some Methodist churches in Sylvan. A storekeeper won’t sell items from his store on Sunday but will sell items from his restaurant. The plagues are mentioned as being something God enjoyed sending early in His career.

August’s grandmother, also a beekeeper, said that she once heard the bees humming the Christmas story — something August doesn’t believe to be literally true but feels it happened in a figurative sense. She tells Lily that if she listens closely enough, she will hear the Christmas story inside herself.

Other Belief Systems

Bees have spiritual significance in this novel. They are compared to angels. August tells Lily about Aristaeus, a mythical beekeeper who was punished by the gods and whose story originates the belief that bees have power over death. Lily hears and has visions of swarms of bees, even before she meets the Boatwrights. She associates the sound with both life and death.

The Boatwrights hold a vigil and keep May’s body at home, partly to help themselves grieve and partly because they believe May’s spirit might not yet have returned to God. They want to help her on her way. May leaves a suicide note saying she will be happier in heaven and that it was her time to die.

May builds and takes care of a wailing wall, modeled after the one in Jerusalem, where she writes names and incidents that bring her distress on pieces of paper and stuffs them between the cracks. After May’s suicide, Lily becomes the keeper of the wall.

Lily wonders about reincarnation. She refers to Mother Nature as a creator. Rosaleen doesn’t go to church but sets up a shrine in her house where she follows a religion loosely based on nature and ancestor worship. Honey is referred to as the shampoo and ambrosia of gods and goddesses. Lily believes that a photo of her and her mother together is a sign that May has arrived in heaven and spoken with Deborah.

August says that the statue of black Mary has been taken over by the spirit of Mary and is one of the special places in the world where Mary’s spirit is concentrated. Lily asks May, after she is deceased, to tell Mary that although they know Jesus is the main figure of Christianity on earth, they are doing their best to keep the remembrance of her alive.

At communion, the Daughters of Mary feed pieces of honey cake to each other, saying that each piece is the body of Mary. They then re-enact the statue’s story by chaining black Mary in the honey house amid prayers, chants, Bible readings, dances and songs. Mary is referred to as the Queen of Heaven. As part of their ritualized reenactment, the Daughters remove the statue of Mary from the honey house, rub honey all over her body and then wash her with water.

Lily remembers seeing a picture in a book where Mary has a door in her abdomen where people can enter to be safe, and she wishes that she, too, could crawl inside her. August tells Lily that Mary lives inside her and that Lily can draw power and strength from the mother she finds inside herself. Lily believes she is feeling the Assumption inside of her and never gets tired of looking at the statue of black Mary.

August’s mother believed that Mary lived on the moon. August’s mother tells the statue that she should have had a girl (instead of Jesus). Brother Gerald believes that all Catholics are going to hell.

Authority Roles

T. Ray is an abusive father. In addition to hitting, kicking and slapping Lily, he mocks her for reading books. Despite Lily’s high-test scores, he does not support her dream of getting a post-secondary education. He takes away Lily’s food and feeds it to his dog.

When he falsely assumes that Lily has been with a boy, he punishes her by making her kneel on grits until they bruise her legs. He refuses to purchase any gifts she has asked for and doesn’t know her favorite color. He once loved Lily’s mother, but the couple only married because Deborah was pregnant with Lily. Lily wonders if he will ever love her.

Rosaleen is a gruff substitute for a mother, but cares deeply about Lily. Lily wishes that Rosaleen could adopt her, but in the South, this is impossible because Lily is white and Rosaleen is black.

Lily’s teacher, Mrs. Henry, inspires Lily to dream of becoming a professor or a writer.

Brother Gerald, the minister at Lily’s church, claims to love black people as long as they stay in their own place. Lily tries to talk him out of pressing charges against Rosaleen for allegedly stealing two church fans.

Clayton Forrest, a white Tiburon lawyer, is supportive of Zach’s dream to become the first black lawyer and shares books and case file information with him. Later, he is instrumental in representing Zach, Lily and Rosaleen and getting the charges against them dropped.

August chooses not to marry because she doesn’t want to wait hand-and-foot on a husband. She acts as a mother figure, teacher and spiritual leader for Lily. Lily asks Mary to be her mother, and August suggests that Mary could be a stand-in mother for Deborah. Lily considers June, Rosaleen and the Daughters of Mary as mother figures and marvels that she has more mothers than anyone.

Lily’s faith in her mother’s love is shattered when August tells her that Deborah, depressed and in the middle of a nervous breakdown, left 4-year-old Lily with T. Ray for about three months while she recovered at the Boatwright sisters’ house. Deborah did come back for Lily, but was accidentally killed before she could follow through with her plans to divorce T. Ray and start a new life.

Profanity/Violence

The following profanities were used between five and 15 times each: godd--n, d--n, h---, s---, b--ch and p---. God’s or Christ’s name is taken in vain and the n-word is used a few times. Questionable word choices include the use of colored as a descriptor for black people. There is one use of the word tit.

Lily accidentally kills her mother at the age of 4. She remembers T. Ray and her mother arguing and then T. Ray becoming physically aggressive with her mother. They threaten each other with a gun, which somehow ends up on the floor. When Lily tries to protect her mother from her father’s wrath, she picks it up and remembers the noise of the gunshot but nothing else.

T. Ray is violently abusive. He makes Lily kneel on grits until her legs are bruised and threatens to kill a baby chick Rosaleen buys Lily for Easter. When Lily asks questions about her mother, T. Ray becomes violent. Then and at other times, he hits and kicks Lily, and slaps her across the face. He also beats her for reading while waiting for customers at the peach stand.

He threatens to tear Lily apart. He appears to suffer a mental breakdown when he finally finds Lily at the Boatwrights’ place, and Lily worries that if she returns home with him, he may murder her. Although he claims that Lily is the one who pulled the trigger and killed her mother, the reader is left with some doubts about the truthfulness of his statement.

A group of men viciously assault Rosaleen for pouring snuff juice on their shoes. They attack her again in jail, with the permission of a racist police officer, and injuries are so bad that she ends up in the hospital where her head is bandaged and stitched.

Lily, Rosaleen and the Boatwright sisters see news reports on TV about violent crimes being committed against blacks. May becomes very distraught by these reports, shouting, sobbing and tearing at her clothing. May commits suicide by lying down in the river and trapping herself underwater by pulling a large rock onto her torso. August and the remaining Boatwright sisters retrieve her body from the river. April, May’s twin sister, became depressed and committed suicide in her teens, after being treated differently than white children.

A group of white men stand guard outside a theater, one of them with a weapon. The man with the weapon threatens Zach and his friends, one of whom throws a coke bottle at his face, breaking his nose. As a child, Zach was bullied by a group of older boys, who hooked a necklace of live fish over his head. Too afraid to swim in water up to his neck, Zach begged them to remove the necklace. When the fish died, Zach felt guilty for not helping them stay alive longer.

Honey is mentioned as an embalming fluid and as a burial method for babies, to keep them fresh.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Breasts are mentioned and described in varying levels of detail. Rosaleen left her husband because he repeatedly cheated on her. Lily feels sad that her mother wasn’t there for the milestones of puberty. Rosaleen and Lily swim naked in a creek.

Lily feels physically attracted to Zach and imagines their bodies entwined together. Lily and Zach hold hands and share a kiss. They promise one another that they will be together some day. Outside their farm, T. Ray has installed a giant peach on a pole that resembles a human rear end.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Lying: Lily uses menstruation as an excuse to leave several situations. She lies to Brother Gerald in an attempt to convince him to drop the charges against Rosaleen. In an effort not to be arrested or sent back to T. Ray, Lily lies to the police about her identity.

Theft: Rosaleen steals two church fans. Lily steals snuff for Rosaleen.

Tobacco: Rosaleen chews snuff.

Racism: Many people in South Carolina in the 60s hold racist beliefs and are resistant to change, even after it is legislated at the national level. Panic ensues when an attempt is made to integrate the city’s pool. When a rumor surfaces that a white movie star will be bringing a black woman to the local theater, there is unrest among the town’s white residents. Some people refuse to purchase August’s honey because of the black Madonna on the label. A police officer feels that Lily staying at a black woman’s house is beneath her and suggests that she leave as soon as possible. When Lily and Zach express their feelings for each other, Lily wonders aloud what would happen if she, like Zach, were black. Zach responds that they can’t change their skin color, but they can change the world. Lily’s church actively discourages black people from attending services, going so far as to link arms across the steps to prevent any persons of color from entering. When Lily and Rosaleen stop at the church on their way to Tiburon, the minister makes it very clear that Rosaleen isn’t welcome. He later attempts to charge Rosaleen with the theft of two church fans.

Catholic faith: The Boatwright sisters are Catholic but have mixed in a number of spiritual beliefs from mythology and nature. Every night, they say personal prayers and use a rosary. Instead of going to church, the Boatwright sisters lead a service with a group of women (and one man) called the Daughters of Mary. They sing, read the Bible, chant, dance and touch Mary’s heart. June, August and Rosaleen bake cakes for the Feast of the Assumption, which is the Catholic celebration of Mary being taken into heaven.

Black Mary statue: The Boatwright sisters keep a statue of a black Mary, fist raised, in their parlor. It is the focal point of their religious rituals and celebrations. August tells the story of how their black Mary statue (originally a ship’s figurehead) was found by a slave and became a symbol of hope, strength and freedom to their community. When the slave master, wary of anything that encouraged people to live with a raised fist, chained the statue in the barn, the statue of Mary miraculously escaped. The black Mary featured on August’s honey labels is the Black Madonna of Breznichar in Bohemia. While Lily is shocked at first to see a black depiction of Mary, August explains that black Madonnas have a long history in Europe. She feels that everyone should think of God in a way that looks like him or her. Lily is drawn to the statue and feels it has power. She faints the first time she tries to touch black Mary’s heart. Lily prays to Mary, crossing herself and touching black Mary’s heart as she tells her that she is her mother. After May disappears, August asks June to kneel before the statue and pray for May’s safety. The women repeat Hail Marys as they search for May. Parallels are drawn between Mary and the queen bee of a hive. When a swarm of bees land on Lily, she feels that they are lovingly caressing her as sisters. August temporarily drapes black cloth over the beehives as a symbol that the dead will rise again.

Movie Tie-In: Producers often use a book as a springboard for a movie idea or to earn a specific rating. Because of this, a movie may differ from the novel. To better understand how this book and the movie differ, compare this book review with Plugged In's movie review for The Secret Life of Bees.

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Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

15 to 19

Author

Sue Monk Kidd

Cast

Director

Distributor

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

Viking, a member of the Penguin Group

Released

On Video

Year Published

2002

Awards

New York Times Bestseller, 2008; Book Sense Book of the Year, 2004

Reviewer

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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