Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Book Review - Classics - The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter

Gene (Geneva) Stratton-Porter and this book, The Keeper of the Bees, are both sadly overlooked. The Keeper of the Bees is a classic. It’s a beautiful story, wonderfully written, and filled with characters so real, you think you might meet one of them yourself any day now.

Gene Stratton-Porter was brought up in the forests of Indiana – when Indiana had forests – before the trees were cut down for timber – and she was a lover of nature. The natural world plays such importance that is a character in all of her books, and in all of them you can find her belief that nature can heal us and teach us valuable lessons that we miss if we spend all our time in the city. This is a belief I feel very in tune with. My relatives, on both sides of my family, lived in the countryside, and I grew up spending summers in the country. I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything.

Stratton-Porter’s books are filled with everything in just the right amounts. They possess a quiet humor, but in no way are these books comedic; they contain tragedy, but the prevailing mood always remains one of optimism; they are filled with love, but in no way are they romances. They are, above all else, human, and they reflect the human condition. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to identify with them, for everyone I know who’s taken my suggestion and read Gene Stratton-Porter, and most especially, The Keeper of the Bees, just falls in love with the book and wants more from this very special author.

The Keeper of the Bees is Stratton-Porter’s last novel and is set in 1920s California, the state she adopted as her home. The story revolves around Jamie McFarlane, a man of Scottish descent, who has been sent to a California military hospital after being severely wounded in World War I. The hospital wants to send Jamie away, to a rehabilitation camp, but Jamie knows tuberculosis, not health, is running rampant at the camp, and he rebels. Though he’s weak and without family, he leaves the hospital for parts unknown. At least he can die on a tranquil beach. Or so he thinks.

Some people think we draw to us what we, ourselves are. A kind of “like begets like” sort of thing. And so it is with Jamie. As luck – or destiny – would have it, he ends up at the door of the Bee Master, a man who is also trying to recover his health in the face of serious heart problems. The Bee Master needs to spend some time in the hospital, and even though Jamie’s a stranger, the Bee Master asks him to take care of his beloved hives for him while he’s gone. At least Jamie has youth on his side, something the Bee Master does not. And so Jamie begins to learn about beekeeping, and also how to care for the beautiful flowers that surround the Bee Master’s lovely seaside home. The reader, by the way, will learn more about beekeeping in this lovely book than in most manuals on the subject, but don’t let that put you off. Stratton-Porter always makes it the most fascinating subject.

As Stratton-Porter describes Jamie’s initial lessons in beekeeping and gardening, readers can hear the surf as it crashes onto the sandy beach; they can smell the fresh salt air; they can see the beautiful blue flowers that grow in the Bee Master’s garden; they feel they can reach out and pluck a ripe tomato fresh from the vine; they can hear the hives humming and taste the sweet honey as soon as it’s made. Stratton-Porter’s writing is that immediate and that filled with sensory detail, something that’s very rare in books published today.

Jamie doesn’t jump right into all this beauty and tranquility and heal, both physically and spiritually. At least not immediately. In fact, one stormy night finds Jamie on the beach, so distraught that he considers ending his life. Instead, he meets a mysterious woman whose life is in worse shape than his, and who will be instrumental in his own restoration to health and wholeness. (It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Jamie does return to health and wholeness; you only have to read two or three pages of this wonderful book to see how very life affirming it is.)

There’s nothing about The Keeper of the Bees that isn’t just plain, old-fashioned wonderful. This is storytelling at its finest. Storytelling. This book isn’t concerned with exploring some new form of experimental literature. It isn’t concerned with taking us off to worlds that only exist in the author’s imagination. It isn’t concerned with being “coy” or “cute.” Yes, those things have their place, and with the exception of “coy” and “cute,” I, too, like most other readers, enjoy many different kinds of literature. If I had to choose one kind, however, it would be the realistic portrayals found in The Keeper of the Bees. Stratton-Porter seeks to illuminate the bonds that connect us all, that make us human, and she succeeds wonderfully. The people you meet in The Keeper of the Bees are the kind of people you’d probably like to get to know in real life. People you’d enjoy having as neighbors and friends. Jamie, himself, is a wonderful, three-dimensional character. And then there’s the Little Scout.

Little Scout is a character that might be frowned on today, as we’re unsure, for most of the book, whether Little Scout is a boy or a girl. All we know is that he/she is nothing short of delightful. Little Scout bubbles over with life. He/she runs a little faster, works a little harder, and loves a little better. And, in the last part of the book, we do find out whether Little Scout is a boy or a girl, but I won’t reveal the answer to that question here. If you want to know, and if you want to know what happens to Little Scout, you have to read the book.

If I have one criticism of this book, it might be that Stratton-Porter could get a little “preachy” about things she felt were morally reprehensible, but she never overdoes it, and her strong morals never interfere with the story.

The Keeper of the Bees manages to be a quintessentially American story, though really, the events this story depicts could have happened just about anywhere. I guess the difference lies in the fact that they would have been told in a different way if they would have happened in a different country. Or maybe not. Maybe The Keeper of the Bees is a story that could have happened to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Maybe it’s that universal.

This is a book to read and reread, to cherish, and to pass along to those we love, so they can read it, too.


Recommended: Absolutely. If you’re just looking for a heartwarming, wise, and wonderful story, this book can’t be beat. It’s life-affirming on every page.

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