Those of you have been following this web site for several years know that my mom has dementia and is now in long-term care. She’s doing very well, all things considered. Still there’s a lot of emotional upheaval that comes with caring for someone with dementia who you love, so I generally steer clear of novels right now that could make life feel even stressful than it already is…so why on earth would I decide to read Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar?
This is a story told from a twelve-year-old’s point of view and children tend to see things with a fresh and largely unbiased perspective. There were the bees – no small factor. It also takes place in the Southwest, an area I love, and deals with the transition multi-generational immigrant families go through as they become more Americanized. And, last but not least, there was something about the publisher’s description that drew me in – maybe it was just meant to be. For all the conscious and subconscious reasons I chose this novel, I’m really glad I did. The underlying subject is difficult to read about normally; however, it’s treated with respect and dignity and, above all, it’s treated accurately. Let’s see if it’s a book that belongs on your TBR pile…
Twelve-year-old Carolina, who insists on being called Carol, was looking forward to spending the summer lounging around the pool in Albuquerque with her best friends during the day and having fun sleep-overs at different friends’ homes at night. They’ll all be going to middle school this Fall and it feels like this will be their last true summer as children, and they plan to make the most of it. So you can imagine how she reacted when she learned that instead she was going to be spending the summer far from them in the middle of the New Mexico desert with just her family and a grandfather she’s never even met. How totally unfair is that?
Her parents won’t budge. They insist it’s going to take the whole family to get her grandfather’s affairs in order and get him moved into assisted living, i.e., a facility for people with dementia – whatever that is. Is he crazy or something? Why are they going to be staying with a crazy person?
“’Are you sure we didn’t miss a turn? Maybe we’re in Mexico.’
Dad snorts. ‘Trust me, I’d rather go to Mexico.’…
My mom and my one-year-old brother, Lu, follow in the minivan, the only other vehicle on the road.”…
At least my mom and dad are dreading it, too. I’ll have some company in my misery.
We turn off the highway and rattle down a long dirt road for about ten minutes…
The entire property is tucked between the buttes – out of sight, out of mind. Forgotten by civilization. Grandpa Serge’s two-hundred-acre sheep ranch, the place where Dad grew up.
My dad may have grown up here, but he also left the first chance he got. I can see why.”
“’Let’s go over this one more time,’ he [her dad] says. ‘Our number one goal this summer is…’
‘…not to upset Grandpa,’ I recite.
‘No confusing sentences, no complicated questions, no loud noises, no word puzzles,’ Dad lists.
No talking about Grandma Rosa, I add silently. But that’s always been Dad’s rule.
‘If he gives you any problems, come find me. ‘Dad shifts in his seat.”
When Carol meets Grandpa Serge, he insists of calling her Carolina and questions why she wants to deny her heritage. He doesn’t get that everyone shortens their name these days. After all, she is an American and Carol sounds so much more American than Carolina…or Caroleeena, as he pronounces it. Why doesn’t he get that no one wants to call attention to themselves by having an odd name? And it seems to be this really big deal for him, as if she’s disowning her whole family going back for generations just because she shortened her name. What’s the big deal?
“’Carolina,’ Serge says.
‘Carol,’ I say.
‘Carolina,’ he says again, stretching out the i into a long eee sound. It’s exactly the kind of drama I remove from my name on purpose.
‘I go by Carol,’ I tell him.
‘Raul doesn’t call you Caroleeena?’
‘Not unless I’m in trouble.’…
‘Caroleeena,’ he says,’ is a beautiful, strong, Spanish name. You should use it. Every day. For everything.’
As if Serge has any idea what it’s like to be a twelve-year-old girl. I roll my eyes. ‘I’ll go by Carolina the minute all my friends go by their Spanish names.’”
Still, there’s no one around except Carol’s younger brother, who’s no fun, so she finds herself drawn to this crazy old man. She can’t understand why he keeps talking about a lake and bees. What bees? There aren’t any bees in the desert. And what lake? Is he hallucinating? There is no lake and no sign there’s ever been a lake – just miles and miles of sandy dirt. And he talks about all the plants they grew and the abundance of food they grew but there’s only sagebrush and cactus in the desert around his house. There’s nothing there and nothing will grow there. And what’s all this nonsense about the bees stealing the lake? Obviously he’s lost his marbles. Bees don’t steal non-existent lakes and an abundance of fruit and vegetables don’t grow in the barren, parched desert. Maybe it’s pure boredom but Carol finds herself increasingly asking him questions about the outlandish stories he concocts. It all sounds like something out of a fairy tale but still, it’s fascinating to listen to – and she’s got nothing better to do when she’s not helping her parents or looking after her brother.
Her grandfather insists that the black, dead tree in the field beyond the house is a healing tree, that the bees stole the water as penance for a great wrong committed, and that when penance has been done to their satisfaction then the bees will return the water to the lake, and then all with be well again on this once-blessed land. He talks about things that happened hundreds of years ago as if he was there and as if they happened yesterday, an impossibility but fascinating still. And he asks if she’s seen any bees constantly…constantly. After first saying she’s seen bees, and upsetting him, she always replies that she hasn’t seen or heard any bees, but is she telling the truth? What about the odd buzzing sound coming from her deceased grandmother’s bedroom closet?
“’No rain in this desert,’ Serge says. ‘No rain for a hundred years.’”
‘And no rain for a hundred years means no bees.’
‘Bees?’ I echo.
‘Si, No rain means no flowers. No flowers means no bees.’”
‘I saw a bee earlier,’ I say. ‘Two of them, actually.’
‘Here?’ he frowns. ‘No, no bees in a drought.’…
Below the porch, Lu laughs and babbles, ‘Impah! Impah!’
‘Impossible, yes,’ Serge plucks that word from the air like fish from a river. ‘Bees, impossible. But it’s only impossible if you stop to think about it.’…’If you see any more bees, Chiquita, tell me. The bees will bring back the rain.’
Don’t you mean the rain will bring back the bees?’ I ask, hoping my correction won’t upset him.
But he shakes his head emphatically, ‘No. The bees will bring back the rain. But first we need the bees.’”
“No rain for a hundred years…it sounds like something from a book, an evil curse from a grudge-holding fairy who wasn’t invited to a party. Except curses in fairy tales always come to an end, and here the sky is cloudless for miles. Forever. If this is a drought, it’s miserable.”
Although the surface story thread in Hour of the Bees is about a family going through the extremely hard process of what to do when a parent/grandparent with dementia is no longer safe to live alone, there are a number of subplots that carry equal importance in this novel. Those include the decision to stay true to one’s heritage or disavow it to fit in and what is reality vs. fantasy. Where do you draw the line and how open are you to possibilities that might seem on the surface to be unrealistic? Could there be any truth to the fantastical stories Carol’s grandfather tells?
How do we separate truth from fiction, especially when faced with someone with dementia? Contrary to what you might think, dementia doesn’t mean someone has lost their mind or is incompetent. It is a complex illness that includes lucidity but also can include varying degrees of hallucination, delusion, paranoia, and, yes, fantasy. What parts of what Carol’s grandfather is talking about are real and what parts are fantasy, and can she figure that out while there’s still time? If any of what he says is true, what will happen if they force him to leave the healing tree that he believes has kept him alive all these years?
Lindsay Eagar has written a very compelling debut novel in Hour of the Bees. It was so compelling on so many levels for me that I don’t even know where to begin. It is heart-wrenching and heartwarming at the same time. It is filled with a fantastical world set amidst a drought-ridden desert wasteland – and the bees. What magical creatures bees are in real life, much less in the tales told by Carol’s grandfather. It also tells the tale of how humans tend to behave in both the real world and Grandpa Serge’s tale…will we evolve enough to stop our destructive patterns before it’s too late? I certainly hope so. I’m sure you’ve realized there is an environmental message here too, which is only fitting given the role that bees play in our survival. I’m recommending Hour of the Bees for middle school readers on up through adults. The story is wonderfully told and the messages are worthwhile for us all.
Can’t wait to read it? Hour of the Bees will be published on March 8, 2016; however, it’s available for pre-order now in all formats from your favorite online bookseller. Click on the link below and you can have it the moment it’s published. WooHoo!
I’d love to get your comments on Hour of the Bees, Lindsay Eagar, and/or this review.