The book opens in the summer of 1964 with Lily Owens, age fourteen, lying in bed watching bees fly into her room. She recalls her mother’s death, which occurred when Lily was four years old. She alludes to some sort of accident and thinks that it was not Lily’s fault. In her mother’s absence, Lily has lived with her disgruntled father, T. Ray Owens. He is abusive and cold, and Lily does her best to avoid him.
During nights alone in her room, Lily sees swarms of bees entering her room. The threat of being stung scares her, but she finds the sight of so many bees amazing. She runs to wake up T. Ray to show him the swarm, but when they return back to Lily’s room, the bees have disappeared, which annoys T. Ray. Despite Lily’s insistence that the bees existed, T. Ray does not believe her, so Lily decides to catch the bees to prove it to T. Ray.
Lily flashes back to her only memory of her mother, which was from the day she died, December 3, 1954. Lily remembers that her mother was packing frantically that day, and then T. Ray entered the house. Lily’s mother became even more rushed with his presence. When T. Ray entered the room, they began to fight, and Lily was pulled out of the room. Lily’s mother then grabbed a gun. T. Ray grabbed the gun away and dropped it on the floor. Lily picked up the gun, and as far as her memory goes, she thinks she shot her mother.
Lily and T. Ray have been living on a peach farm in Sylvan, South Carolina. The kids at Lily’s school ridicule her for the giant peach that stands by the gate of the farm, calling it “the Great Fanny.” Lily is not a very social girl, and she makes her own clothes. She is disappointed by her looks and her inability to be a girl.
Rosaleen, the Owens’ black housekeeper (age unknown), does her best to reassure Lily of her charms. Lily knows that despite her sharp tongue, Rosaleen loves Lily endlessly. Rosaleen stands up for Lily in the face of T. Ray. Rosaleen was born into a large family in McClellanville, South Carolina, but she does not know where any of her siblings are. She married, but she kicked her husband out for cheating on her. Lily dreams of Rosaleen being her real mother.
Lily’s mother’s name was Deborah, a name that T. Ray refuses to say. Lily has been able to learn very little about her mother. Lily has often missed her mother during specifically feminine moments like buying a bra or getting her first period. Lily does find relics of her mother in her attic: a small bag containing a photo of Deborah, a pair of white gloves, and a small wooden picture of a black Mary with “Tiburon, S.C.” scratched into the back. Lily has kept her mother’s belongings buried in the backyard. Lily makes a goal of traveling to Tiburon one day, for she wants to go everywhere her mother had ever been.
Spending afternoons selling peaches for T. Ray from a roadside stand, Lily is consistently bored, but she is not allowed to bring books to entertain her. Lily loves reading, and one of her teachers, Mrs. Henry, provides insight into how bright Lily’s future could be. Mrs. Henry encourages Lily to consider a profession as a writer or a professor. Lily accepts that her future could lead to writing, which she loves. Lily writes whenever she gets the chance. T. Ray mocks her for her endeavors, but Lily spends her time in the peach stand writing poetry.
The day before Lily starts first grade, T. Ray confronts Lily about what happened to Deborah. He says she was cleaning out the closet, and T. Ray is shocked when Lily confesses that she remembers. T. Ray says that after she picked up the gun, it just went off, killing her mother. He adds that Lily did not mean to do it, so now she knows what happened.
The nation has begun to obsess over Khrushchev and the possibility of being bombed by the Soviet Union. Lily’s school begins bomb drills. Around the same time, President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law, and Rosaleen is thrilled. Lily is worried, however, that the law might cause an uproar among the white community.
Lily’s birthday is approaching, and she is thinking about how to delicately approach the topic with T. Ray. Every year, she hopes that T. Ray will acknowledge her birthday with a special gift—perhaps a silver charm bracelet—but he never does. When Lily mentions the bracelet, she is ignored.
That night, Lily goes to the backyard to dig up her mother’s belongings, and she falls asleep in the orchard. She is awakened by T. Ray running through the trees looking for her. He accuses her of being out in the backyard with someone, and he punishes her with kneeling on grits, a painful punishment she has been enduring since she was six. She is left with small welts all over her knees. Up until that point, Lily thought that maybe T. Ray loved her a bit, but afterwards she feels convinced that he does not.
Rosaleen tells Lily that she will be registering to vote on the Fourth of July. Lily begs Rosaleen to take her along. Lily gets permission from T. Ray under the pretense that she is going to town to buy female sanitary supplies, a topic that T. Ray avoids.
That night, Lily attempts to let her bees go. She unscrews the lid of the jar which held them, but the bees do not move. They are still there the next morning, when Rosaleen walks into Lily’s bedroom with a birthday cake. They begin their long walk to town, and the two of them stop to rest in the church.
The church minister walks in to find Lily and Rosaleen, and he shows an obvious look of disapproval that Lily is accompanied by a black woman. The minister makes small talk and wishes Lily a happy birthday. Rosaleen asks if they could borrow church fans for Lily’s birthday, but the minister refuses. As Lily and Rosaleen leave the church, Rosaleen steals the fans.
Once the two are in town in Sylvan, several men call out to Rosaleen in an insulting and derogatory way. Rosaleen says that she is registering to vote, but the men continue to mock her. After continued harassment, Rosaleen decides to fight back, pouring the snuff spit she had collected all over the shoes of the men. They demand that Rosaleen apologize and clean their shoes, but she refuses. The men call the police and then beat Rosaleen. When the police arrive, Rosaleen is arrested, and the officer tells Lily they will call T. Ray for her.
The three men who assaulted Rosaleen follow them to the police station. When they get out of the car, Rosaleen is handcuffed and the men continue to beat her. Rosaleen suffers a heavy blow to the head. The men threaten to continue, but Officer Gaston takes Rosaleen and Lily into the jailhouse out of harm’s way. After half an hour, T. Ray comes to pick Lily up, but Rosaleen has to stay in jail.
Lily begs T. Ray to get Rosaleen out of jail, but he explains that Rosaleen chose to dump spit all over the most racist man in town. Upon returning home, T. Ray tells Lily not to think about leaving the house, and Lily responds that he does not scare her. She and T. Ray get into a fight ending with T. Ray attempting to punch Lily in the face. Lily claims that her mother would have kept her safe, but T. Ray replies that Deborah did not care about Lily and that in fact she intentionally had left Lily behind. Lily sinks, and her mind rattles around her father’s statement. She decides to leave T. Ray’s house and get Rosaleen out of jail.
She takes $38, some clothing, toiletries, and her mother’s belongings. She writes T. Ray a note and leaves with T. Ray running after her. Lily ponders where she will go after she meets Rosaleen, and she concludes that she must go to Tiburon. At the station, Officer Gaston informs Lily that Rosaleen is at the hospital because she had “fallen and hit her head.” Lily heads to the hospital, despite warnings from Officer Gaston that she will not be permitted to see Rosaleen.
Lily sneaks by the officer stationed at the hospital and finds Rosaleen. Her head is bandaged heavily, and she tells Lily that the police allowed the men who had harassed Rosaleen to beat her up. Rosaleen still refused to apologize to them.
Despite Rosaleen’s protests, Lily devises a plan to get Rosaleen out of the hospital. Lily calls the hospital pretending to be the jailer’s wife with instructions that the officer guarding Rosaleen must go back to the station. Once the officer leaves the hospital, Rosaleen and Lily walk out. They begin thumbing for a ride. Eventually a black man selling melons picks them up and agrees to drop them three miles from Tiburon.
Once they get out of the car, Lily explains that they have traveled to Tiburon due to Lily’s hope that she would find someone who knew her mother. She tells Rosaleen what T. Ray said about Deborah leaving Lily. Lily hopes Rosaleen can provide contradictory information, but Rosaleen replies that she only saw Deborah from a distance and noticed that she always seemed sad. This angers Lily, and she and Rosaleen argue before going to bed in a forest.
When Lily awakens in the night, she cannot find Rosaleen, so she panics. She finds Rosaleen bathing in the river and then apologizes for their fight. Rosaleen does the same. Lily is still consumed by thoughts of her mother.
At the beginning of the book, the parallels between humans and bees begin. The first link is established between bees and Lily’s mother, Deborah. The name “Deborah” is a translation from the Hebrew for “bee.” In addition, Lily interprets the swarms of bees that enter her room to be signs that come directly from her mother. Along with the bees come words of advice and comfort from an unknown voice.
Lily’s character is developed in these chapters as a child who has suffered a rough past. She not only has lived through the traumatic event of her mother’s death, but she also feels tremendous guilt for causing her death. She remembers enough to know that she bears some responsibility, although she has never understood why her mother had been gone and was packing. Meanwhile, her father, T. Ray, is abusive and cold. These aspects of her family life help the reader understand why Lily is so sad and a bit peculiar. She expects disappointment, and she has come to accept that she will not grow up to become much. It is not until her teacher, Mrs. Henry, intervenes and supports her that she starts to see herself as having a productive future.
Kidd paints amazing descriptions of the setting surrounding Lily in South Carolina. She uses specific metaphors in addition to the symbol of the bees when she compares lightning to “soft golden licks across the sky.” She also uses personification, writing that the “darkness pulls the moon to the top of the sky.” In addition, she interweaves nature imagery with emotions to paint the scene, explaining, for instance, that “sunset is the saddest light there is.”
The use of Lily’s memory serves two purposes. First of all, since Lily can remember aspects of her mother’s death, she can provide most the information in the first person. No one else is needed to tell Lily’s story. The way that Lily retells the story allows the reader to gain the perspective of a sad and confused child in the midst of chaos.
Second, Lily’s blurred memory creates holes that Lily herself will work to fill in. Someone else needs to tell her mother’s story, and Lily will try to do so by journeying into her mother’s past and going everywhere her mother has been. T. Ray abuses his position as Lily’s father when he apparently lies, telling Lily that her mother was leaving in part to abandon her. This is not a story that fits Lily’s understanding of motherhood and love, so she becomes disturbed enough to leave her cold father behind and seek a more believable truth.
The theme of race relations is established immediately in this first section of the book. Lines are drawn between black and white across all settings: in the home, in church, in town, regarding crime and justice, and even in art and religion, as depicted by the black Mary picture among Deborah’s belongings. South Carolina in 1964 is certainly a hotbed of racial tension. Although the Civil Rights Act is in force, the citizens themselves are slow to accept the essential equality of people of different races. Rosaleen is ready to take up her rights, however, and Lily seems to have no problem whatsoever of appreciating Rosaleen on the basis of who she is—in some ways, the mother Lily has not had.
The relationships that matter, for them, are guided more by gender than by race. That is, the two are bonding as females against people like the racist men and T. Ray. Although Lily is somewhat quick to get into fights, she has had enough of T. Ray while she actively seeks out Rosaleen to make up after their fight.