The Keeper of the Bees has to be one of my all-time favorite books. When we talk about the love of things Good, True, and Beautiful, this book comes to mind. It is the last book written by Gene Stratton Porter before her death in 1924.
Our hero, James Lewis MacFarlane, a stalwart Scotsman, has recently been mustered out of the army, and discharged himself from an army hospital. He embodies qualities we hope to instill in our children or ourselves, though he wrestles with himself frequently, in an effort to maintain the true, the beautiful, and the good in his life. He has a wound that won’t heal despite the best of care in a wonderful spa/hospital. So he sets off on a Great Adventure to see if he can find his own cure and put himself back into useful public life. His time spent in the Great War has jaded him a bit toward humankind and God, but at every turn he keeps being reminded that God is still interested in him and his doings
After many twists and turns, Jamie (as his friends call James), finds himself the sole aide to an elderly gentleman, The Bee Master, who is in very poor health. As the man is being taken to the hospital, he makes Jamie promise to take care of his property and his bees until such time as he can return. Bees? Property? What does Jamie know of those? Nothing! But that does not stop him from promising. He honors his word, which leads him to meet his new neighbor, Mrs. Cameron, and the Little Scout, who are both bent on honoring their own promises. It has been Mrs. Cameron’s pleasure to care of her friend and neighbor, The Bee Master.
The Little Scout is the Bee Master’s partner and current scoutmaster of a gang of rough and tumble boys who live to play cowboy and Indians, ride horses, have spitting contests, and perform feats of skill and strength. Frequent battles with “Indians” help them hone their shooting skills with bows and arrows, and their ability to sneak up on things and people. One of their main obligations is to always “play the game square.” Many of their antics remind me of my own childhood, (even though I was not born in that era) and of watching my own children as they grew up on our small acreage. In fact, my oldest daughter could out-spit all of the boys in her junior high class. Makes a mother proud!
Mrs. Cameron wastes no time learning about Jamie’s unhealed wound and, with suggestions from him, they create a plan to see if they can make a difference. They want to use good air, good water, and good eating to see if their new regimen will have the desired effect. Mrs. Cameron is the kind of person who needs someone to look after, and is very pleased to have Jamie near.
As soon as The Little Scout, learns that The Bee Master is in the hospital, there is nothing for it but to help Jamie succeed in his new job. There is much to learn about being good at taking care of the bees, and also about becoming a good new friend. Being scoutmaster is a full-time job; family duties have priority, overseeing the gang is taxing, but adventures are always acceptable, and there are plenty to be had on the Bee Master’s property. As these folks grow closer to each other, they are able to bring out the best in each other most of the time, and will go to great lengths to protect one another.
It is refreshing that Jamie really tries to understand the truth about the life that has been handed to him. He has to look at his own mortality, knowing that all the planning he does may not be beneficial. It is this thought that gives him the courage to help The Storm Woman whom he meets on a rock in the ocean during a storm. She is in great distress, and he vows to help her however he can. When he asks her what she needs, she says, “I need a marriage certificate, a ring, and a name for an unborn baby.” Not what he was expecting, I’ll wager, but he is living on borrowed time, so he has no qualms about granting those things to this damsel in distress. He performs his labor ungrudgingly, and becomes a married man who never expects to see his bride again! As time goes on, he learns that what he heard from The Storm Woman is not quite the story he was imagining. He has to deal with that truth as well.
The beauty of this story touches my heart. I love the description of the blue flowers and the jacaranda trees. I actually got to see those trees in bloom when we visited California one summer. Boy, if I could make those things grow in Wyoming, I sure would! I add as much blue (and purple) to my flowerbeds as possible. Bees would be amazing as well. But more than the beauty of nature, I appreciate how the characters value each other, and do not hesitate to support and help each other. There are definite rough patches that would make it easy to just dismiss an individual and forget about him. Instead, they figure a way to make that rough time a valuable part of their lives. The Little Scout has to learn that keeping up with the gang is not all there is to life. There are things that can be put in place that will make a more well-rounded person of The Little Scout in daily living. Jamie finds out that he can heal physically and emotionally, and his wonderful friends are alongside him all the way; and he finds love. He learns to care for the bees and the things that mattered most to the Bee Master, and they begin to matter to him. The Shame Baby, who was the object of the Storm Woman’s bargain, is an anchor to Mrs. Cameron, and, I think, could easily be renamed The Grace Baby. They have all been able find beauty in the ashes of life.
This may not seem like a story for boys at first, but in Gene Stratton Porter’s words:
“To my way of thinking and working, the greatest service a piece of fiction can do any reader is to leave him with a higher ideal of life than he had when he began. If in one small degree it shows him where he can be a gentler, saner, cleaner, kindlier man, it is a wonder-working book. If it opens his eyes to one beauty in nature he never saw for himself and leads him one step toward the God of the Universe, it is a beneficial book, for one step into the miracle of nature leads to that long walk, the glories of which so strengthen even a boy who thinks he is dying, that he faces his struggle like a gladiator.”
We have also reviewed Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter.