Gene Stratton-Porter is best known for her novels set in the Limberlost, the band of woodland stretching from Michigan to Indiana. The cry of "Timber", a few pink-cheeked lasses, and a stunning array of botanical facts are her trademark, producing novels quite enjoyable to peruse on a summer's day.
Towards the end of her life, however, she turned her characters out on new ground. Gene was interested in nature, and wrote about the flora and fauna in her backyard. When she moved to California just before her death, her characters moved there as well. The most enjoyable California novel I've read thus far is Her Father's Daughter, which I haven't yet reviewed on the blog, but another one I particularly enjoyed I would like to review today.
So I present to you, friends and fellow bibliophiles, The Keeper of the Bees.
Jamie walked out on God when he enlisted in World War One to revenge his beloved Scotland on the nations who wronged her. His passion won him a medal of honor, and left him with a shard of iron lodged in his chest, one that can't come out. The pain of it nearly conquers him when he leaves the hospital. He's a persistent man, though, and by hitchhiking and a good bit of perseverance, makes his way to the California coast, and the house of the Bee Keeper.
The only problem is, the Bee Keeper is in worse shape then Jamie, and needs a fairly quick trip to the hospital. He asks Jamie to stay and look after his property for him until some friends can come back to help, and Jamie, who holds up his medal of honor in proof of his good character, agrees to stick around.
While the Bee Keeper is in the hospital, Jamie starts on the Grand Adventure he's always wanted, in company with the woman who cooks for him next door, and the Little Scout, and a child of uncertain gender, who prefers to keep its real name a secret. Within weeks, Jamie has taken up bee tending, given his name in marriage to a mysterious woman in disgrace whom he calls Storm Girl, and discovered that life is so good, six months seems too short to enjoy what he has left of it. And through it all, he begins to see that perhaps God is not quite finished with him yet, in spite of his indifference.
To refresh my memory of the exact workings of some of the subplots, I browsed The Keeper of the Bees page on Goodreads, and the heated ratings shocked me until I remembered why. Either you'll love this book, or you'll hate it, but either way the divisions between the camps are pretty sharp. This is because The Keeper of the Bees teaches very strongly such themes as God's creation, anti-evolution, femininity, the wrongness of bearing a child out of wedlock (which is a totally foreign no-no in today's culture) and manly chivalry and headship. It teaches that girls are different from boys, and they shouldn't become a tomboy in an attempt to change their sex. It also, in a roundabout way, gives the transgender issue the slap it deserves, almost a century before it became a societal problem.
In other words, Gene Stratton-Porter hit pretty much every hot-button issue in today's society right out of the park, and she never knew the things she was writing about would become rampant social ills in the country she loved so much.
I love books like that.
Certainly the book has a couple of drawbacks. There is a little profanity here and there. Also, a lot of feminists take this author under their wing, and it's pretty easy to look at the book from a modern perspective, instead of understanding its true meaning. Gene likes to give other women inspiration that they are thinking, reasoning, purposeful beings. She wanted women to rise above the idea that they are a decorative angel of the hearth, and realize that, under male headship and within the context of the home, they are to be purposeful, mission-minded, and dominion-oriented. The lesson falls apart slightly at the end of this particular book; the end gives the impression that Jamie joins a woman's mission instead of her coming under his. However, the plot teaches that husbands and wives are designed to work together, and I don't think Porter is trying to teach here that if the woman has a better mission, the man should abandon his for hers. It all must be read in context to get the correct meaning from it.
Oh--and as an aside, you'll also pick up quite a few facts about bees while reading this story.
Gene Stratton-Porter's novels almost never disappoint. If you've never checked out The Keeper of the Bees, I highly recommend that you do so!