The Keeper of the Bees is another novel I turned to for comfort reading while I was sick. Gene Stratton Porter is, to my mind, an unjustly neglected novelist: almost no one I know has read anything by her, but she has a whole list of wonderful early 20th-century American books, including A Girl of the Limberlost, Michael O’Halloran, The Harvester, and Freckles, all of which are well worth reading and re-reading. Her books are full of humor, courage, determination, and the love of nature; they are romantic (or, rather, Romantic) without being too sentimental, and they all feature strong and interesting female characters. Gene (short for Geneva) Stratton Porter was brought up in the forests of Indiana, before they were cut down for timber, and she put into her books her own conviction that nature can teach us lessons about life that are impossible to learn in the city. The beauty of her writing makes her thesis very convincing.
In The Keeper of the Bees, Jamie McFarlane has been sent to a California military hospital after being badly wounded in World War I. He hasn’t healed well, and after a year’s treatment is no better. The hospital proposes to send him to a camp where tuberculosis is rife, and Jamie finally rebels: under the very last of his physical power, expecting to die on the road, he leaves the hospital to seek his fortune. And it is fortune that finds him at the door of the Bee Master, who asks Jamie, a stranger in extremis, to take care of his bees while he recovers from his own serious heart problems in the hospital. Jamie, still considering himself a dying man, agrees, and begins to learn the rudiments of beekeeping and the care of the flowers that surround the Bee Master’s beautiful and inviting seaside home.
One stormy night, Jamie, in despair, goes out to the beach and climbs up on a rock, perhaps hoping to end his life. But what he finds there is a woman in even greater despair than his own. He coaxes her story from her, under cover of the darkness and the storm, and, impulsively, agrees to marry her so that she may use his name to cover her illegitimate child. He assures her that it won’t matter to him, and that she need never see him again, because he is dying. But in the days that follow the strange, abrupt wedding, Jamie finds that the influence of the sea water and air, the fresh fruit he eats, the exercise he takes, and the care of the fascinating bees (with the help of the Little Scout, surely one of the best portrayals of a child I’ve ever read), he is no longer busy dying, but living. Whom did he actually marry? What should he do now? What about the baby? What are the consequences of that stormy night? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
This book is completely wonderful. The characterization of Jamie as a Scot who, after the degradations of war, is beginning to come back to himself, mentally and physically, is pure satisfaction, like breathing clean, fresh air. Porter affirms life on every page of the novel: the complexity of the life-cycle of bees, the perfect scent of sand verbena, the taste of a dead-ripe tomato, all are brought into service to bring Jamie back to health. And his partner, the Little Scout! For nine-tenths of the book, Jamie and the reader are unclear whether the Scout Master is a boy or a girl. All that matters is that the Scout masters the other scouts: the child does everything a little harder, a little faster, and a little better, whether it’s riding, running, fighting, eating hot dogs, or caring for a newborn. The end of this plot line is particularly good. And while Porter can occasionally be a little preachy on the subject of men and women who forget the “laws of Nature and decency” (resulting in illegitimate children, disease, and ruined lives), she doesn’t linger on the moralizing. Her real concern is with cleanliness, uprightness, “playing the game square,” and the fascinating life that nature has to offer.
This novel was perfect comfort reading while I was sick (it made me want a ripe tomato — hard to come by in February, at least where I live!) I would love it if I could recommend Gene Stratton Porter’s novels to a wider audience. I think she really deserves it.