As we finish off our Recipe for Bees discussion guide for book club member distribution, we thought you eager book clubbers might appreciate a sneak peak! In this post, you’ll find Alan Bradly’s reflective essay, as well as discussion questions for your book club to consider. The action will be shared in our January newsletter, so get on our mailing list to receive it in your inbox. Enjoy! ~The Amnesty International Book Club Team
Alan Bradley on A Recipe for Bees
A Recipe for Bees grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and tossed me, as if I were a sack of grain, back to another time and another place—or two other times, to be perfectly honest.
Although I was never able to articulate it until I read this book—and its predecessor, the admirably-named The Cure for Death by Lightning—British Columbia’s Shuswap Valley and Shuswap Lake always seemed to me to be haunted by history, both human and otherwise, river arteries flowing among the muscles of the mountains: a vast landscape in which you are now in vast, spacious cattle country and, moments later, have the feeling you have wandered into a miniature painting on a Chinese folding screen.
It is both volcanic and glacial; a Norwegian fjord transported here for no reason other than human delight.
Gail Anderson-Dargatz makes maximum use of this ambivalence of place and spirit. Her protagonist, Augusta Olsen, dwells in a place on the borderlands of reality: a place somewhere between hither and thither; a place which exists, against all the odds, halfway between now and then; somewhere on the road that runs between Ecstasy and Despair.
If that sounds a bit like Pilgrim’s Progress, that’s because it is. A Recipe for Bees is at once allegory and magic realism. On a farm where crows flock to a funeral and the shades of the dead are seen traipsing into the honey house, nothing is as it seems.
Manny had once told her that the [Indigenous People] on the other side of the river believed a whole other world existed on the underside of the water, populated by fish and other creatures who acted like humans. Maybe this was where her father had been heading when he’d stepped into the South Thompson and been swept away. Maybe some small craziness inside him had known that the other place was there, underneath all that flowing water, and was bound to discover it. His soggy body had bounced against rocks and surfaced, but maybe the part that was truly her father had come up again in that place where the fish had souls, and it was human beings who were the myths and legends, mere stories told to fish children.
This natural world is lovingly observed, from the mountain flowers and grasses to the angle and texture of the light in the trees, it’s all there: a world created and a world observed, conjured up right before your eyes. From cheating wives to a man with no thumb, Augusta’s farm at the junction of the Thompson rivers, North and South, is observed and delineated in detail that would have delighted Chaucer.
Household social detail abounds in the same way it once did in Eaton’s mail-order catalogue, from undies to tractor tires and from corn cribs to corn plasters: daily lives restored in lovingly rendered detail.
The bee lore is simply terrific—and by that I mean terrific! No other book that I know of makes such practical use of the world of the honey bee: that half-hidden life inside the hive where ultra-violet vision allows these creatures to see into spectra beyond our own.
As a person who shares that ability—at least with one eye—I can partly appreciate the wonders which lie beyond normal human perception.
Smell, too, plays a leading role in the life of the honey bee. With 170 odour receptors in their antennae, scent can serve as both personal ID and Global Positioning System.
And then there’s touch. Augusta is taught early in her life the importance of calming the bees by petting the hives, brushing the back of her bare hand affectionately across the frames of the honeycomb, feeling the tickling of the thousand beating wings.
Gail Anderson-Dargatz is one of those rare writers who has the ability to create authentic myth; the ability to inject story directly into our bones. The result, of course, sometimes stings, but then, so does life.
Discussion questions from the Alan Bradley
How does Augusta’s world parallel the lives of the bees in the hives? How does it differ?
In her own world, could Augusta be considered the Queen bee?
Which of her considerable characteristics allow Augusta to survive in a world dominated by her mother and father, her husband, her daughter, her father-in-law, and the public opinion of a small town?
Augusta’s life is profoundly affected by two men who are not part of her family: Joe, and the Reverend. Do they influence her more, or less, than do her relatives? What does she learn from each of these very different men?
Discussion questions from the Amnesty International Book Club:
What did you think of A Recipe for Bees? Which aspects did you appreciate, and which aspects were most challenging?
What is it about life events such as a loved one’s surgery that causes us to reflect upon our own lives and legacy? How have you personally been impacted when your loved ones, or yourself, have faced crisis?
The touches of magic and bee lore largely come from tradition and passed forward knowledge that the author herself possessed. In considering how these stories impact Augusta’s view of the world, can you extrapolate that to your own life? What traditions and lore have you grown up with that impact your world today? Are you conscious of your influences?
The author used images of her own parents within the novel. What does mixing fiction and fact bring to the novel that Anderson-Dargatz creates with A Recipe for Bees?
While so much of the story is set in the past, it cannot help but also leave us considering the future. Consider your legacy in this world and what stories might people tell of you when they one day look back on your life?