Looking back at the summer of 1964, Lily, the fourteen-year-old narrator, realizes everything changed that year. It was the first time the bees came swarming in her bedroom, a sure sign of death according to the black housekeeper, Rosaleen.
At that time, Lily lives with her father, T. (Terrence) Ray, and Rosaleen in Sylvan, South Carolina (pop. 3,100), a town of peach stands and Baptist churches. Her cruel father mostly ignores or punishes Lily, denying her the opportunities and accoutrements that are so important to teenagers trying to fit in. No boys are attracted to her, especially since she wears "Pentecostal dresses." No girls invite her to sleepovers. Like the thrashing bee she traps in a jar, Lily struggles to be like everyone else. But she is an outsider.
Lily has a horrific memory that haunts her. Deborah, her mother, died on December 3, 1954, after a heated argument with T. Ray. Lily was only four, but she remembers her mother hurriedly packing a suitcase. Then T. Ray arrived and argued with Deborah, who reached up on the closet shelf for a gun. T. Ray knocked it out of her hand and it fell on the floor near Lily. Lily picked it up, and she still remembers an explosion. She had accidentally killed her mother. "She was all I wanted. And I took her away."
Now, at fourteen, Lily begins a systematic search for information about her dead mother. She can find out only bits and pieces. Her mother was from Virginia and is buried there. Strangely, Deborah was also adamant about saving bugs instead of killing them. This is all Lily knows about her. She finds a paper bag of her mother's things in the attic: a photo; gloves; and a wooden picture of Mary, mother of Jesus, with (surprisingly) a black face. On the back of the picture someone has written "Tilburon, South Carolina." It's a town only two hours away, and Lily vows to go there. Lily buries her mother's items in a tin box in a wooded area and visits them when she aches for Deborah.
Lily is encouraged by some and discouraged by others. Because Lily's verbal aptitude score is high, her teacher, Mrs. Henry, encourages Lily, telling her she can be a college professor or a writer. Prior to this support, Lily thought she might possibly make it as far as beauty school. Now she has hope, and Mrs. Henry loans her books to read and talks about her getting a scholarship. A discourager, T. Ray makes Lily sell peaches at his stand along the highway but he won't allow her to take a reading book because he thinks education and college are a waste of time for girls. After she leaves the peach stand one day, Lily returns home and sees Rosaleen watching President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act on television.
Before Lily starts school, her father talks to her about her mother's death. When Lily tries to explain that she remembers that day, T. Ray gets angry. He explains that he and Deborah were arguing and Lily picked up the gun and "it just went off." He can't look her in the eye or comfort her, but he staunchly repeats that he has told her the story she must tell others.
A series of events causes Lily to start thinking about leaving home. July 4 is Lily's birthday, and she wants a charm bracelet like the other girls. T. Ray utterly ignores this request. Unhappy, that night she goes out and sleeps in the trees with the tin box of her mother's things. She unbuttons her blouse to allow "night to settle on my skin." The next morning, T. Ray is hunting for her and when he sees her hastily buttoning her blouse, he believes she is meeting a boy. He calls her a slut and punishes her in the usual way. She has to kneel down on uncooked grits, which feel like powdered glass. The next morning, her knees are swollen with red welts and bruises, but she has the tin box safely hidden under her mattress. When Rosaleen arrives, she is appalled at Lily's punishment. T. Ray says Lily will follow his orders as long as she lives in his house, and Lily thinks for the first time about living somewhere else.
Rosaleen is going to town the next day to sign up to vote. She has practiced writing her name, Rosaleen Daise, on a piece of paper. Lily lies to her father so that he'll let her accompany Rosaleen without asking any questions.
The next morning begins with Lily's birthday and ends in an unexpected assault. Rosaleen brings an angel food cake with fourteen candles for Lily's birthday. They walk to Sylvan on a scorching hot day, stopping at the Ebenezer Baptist Church to cool off. Brother Gerald disapproves of Rosaleen in his church, and when she asks about borrowing two paper fans from the church, Brother Gerald says no. So Rosaleen steals them. On the way into Sylvan they are accosted by three white men playing cards who make fun of Rosaleen and ask where she is going. Lily wants no trouble and tells Rosaleen to ignore them. But Rosaleen, disregarding common sense, tells them she is going to register to vote. When they ask about the fans, she admits she stole them. Angrily, she pours the contents of her snuff jar all over their shoes. They grab her, beat her, and call the police, resulting in her arrest. She is charged with assault, theft, and disturbing the peace, and put into a police car with Lily to go to jail. Lily will be released to her father, a fate almost as bad as Rosaleen's.
Chapter 1 of The Secret Life of Bees introduces the reader to the point of view, setting, exposition, and themes that will be integral to the novel. Each chapter begins with an epigram about bees, and these short quotations foreshadow happenings in the chapter. In Chapter 1, the Queen Bee is Deborah, Lily's mother.
The story has a first-person reminiscent point of view; it is a coming-of-age story and will be told by looking back. Because the mature Lily has had time to reflect on the events from her childhood, this viewpoint will be a real advantage. In 1964, Lily is living under horrible conditions, with a father who does not love her and takes every opportunity to punish her. In fact, he punishes her so viciously that the reader wonders why he is so cruel. But Lily also has a substitute mother in Rosaleen, the housekeeper who sometimes has more courage than sense for her own safety.
Reoccurring motifs are introduced. The first of these is the idea that the lives of bees parallel human lives. Kidd begins this connection with the short epigram about bees. Later in the chapter, when Lily imprisons the bees, they fight to get free, just like Lily is imprisoned in a loveless home. But when she opens the jar, the bees are so desensitized they do not fly away. They are battered and exhausted from trying to survive. This, too, represents Lily, who does not think to leave her abusive parent until he punishes her so deeply that she begins to think of freedom.
Lily's yearning for her real mother and her guilt about killing her are themes that will also appear throughout the novel. These two situations add to her loneliness and sense of being an outsider. Lily is already different from other teenagers at her school because she has only her father, and her loneliness is heightened when she is excluded from events like charm school because she is motherless. Lily particularly misses her mother when it comes to maturity issues such as picking out a training bra or starting her periods. Twice, the story of her mother's death is repeated, both through Lily's memory and T. Ray's dubious explanation. Lily even suggests that her own death will allow her to ask for her mother's forgiveness. In this world, however, she has no one to help her with teenage dresses or explain the bits of wisdom that are passed from mother to daughter. Because Lily knows so little about her mother, she makes up romantic stories about her and compares her own photo with that of her beautiful mother. She dreams of what her mother would have been like and the motherly things she would have done, like brushing Lily's hair. She even dreams sometimes that Rosaleen is her mother.
Religion is mentioned only briefly in this chapter, given that the photo with her mother's items is of a black Mary and that Lily is used to attending a church for whites only. Lily does not know why the photo of the Virgin Mary is black, and she accepts the fact that Rosaleen should not be in her Baptist church because blacks are not allowed. In fact, the world of black and white are totally and legally separated in 1964 America, and Lily understands that is the way things are.
The 1964 world of black and white are separated by both law and attitudes. Even churches condone segregation. As Brother Gerald says, "We love them [black people] in the Lord
but they had their own places." That divided world, as well as the Civil Rights Act that will eventually change those divisions, are all part of a theme that will be intertwined with the events of Lily's growing up. Rosaleen does not know her own age or birthday, given that she has no birth certificate. She has six brothers and sisters but has no idea where they are. Rosaleen threw her husband out, but with no mention of legal divorce. Although the Civil Rights Act has become law, changing years of social behavior and attitudes is not so easy. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., is mentioned in this chapter, because he is defying the law and spending time in jail in order to challenge the white world's intentions. When Rosaleen decides to register to vote, Lily becomes uneasy, because she has heard from a church deacon that the white world will find ways to keep this from happening. In fact, a man from Mississippi was killed for registering.
Finally, Chapter 1 introduces ideas that will appear later in the story. Lily's ability to lie in the face of adversity will come in handy in many situations. The one story she knows about her mother — that of not being able to kill or hurt bugs — will also be a thread that is embellished later. Rosaleen's protection of Lily will also continue, even when they are no longer in Sylvan. But the most crucial idea introduced in this chapter is the understanding that this will be a coming-of-age novel, so that Lily will mature through adversity and challenges before the novel ends.