|Credits for photos: moi|
I read The Keeper of the Bees before A Daughter of the Land. My mom, who collects Gene Stratton Porter books along with several other authors, suggested it to me as a sort of peaceful, uplifting story. In retrospect I wish I’d read A Daughter of the Land first, since that book wasn’t as satisfying, and then read The Keeper of the Bees to cheer me up.
Although admittedly this novel is much more Hallmark-y in its moralizing and sentimentality than any of the other Porter novels I’ve read, I really enjoyed the premise and most of the characters of this story.
James Lewis MacFarlane—Jamie to his friends and us readers—is wasting away in a military hospital in California from a shrapnel wound in his chest that simply won’t heal. He overhears that, because of his continued illness, the doctors are going to send him to a ward for tuberculosis patients. This will be a definite death sentence, for if he wasn’t already sick, he’d soon contract that sickness and die.
Jamie runs away from the hospital, though run might be too strong a word for such a weak man to accomplish. Dodging search parties, going without food, and occasionally encountering crooks preying on unsuspecting campers in the wilderness, Jamie makes his way up north. There he comes across the Bee Master, an older man living in a small cottage along the coast.
Though Jamie will eventually owe a lot to the Bee Master, right now it’s the older man who needs him. As Jamie passes by this little cottage the Bee Master reels out of his house, attempting to get help as he’s suffering from some sort of “hard attack.” Jamie helps him, calls the hospital, and as the Bee Master is being carted away, the older man instructs Jamie to take care of his place in exchange for a place to stay.
Jamie clumsily tries to take over his benefactor’s job, reading about bees and hearing lectures from them from the Bee Master’s assistant, an androgynous child called the little Scout. An older lady, Margaret Cameron, is a helpful neighbor and sort of mother-figure to Jamie, while a mysterious Storm Girl steals his heart in a chance encounter along the coast.
Two things bothered me in this novel:
First: I felt Porter overdid the preachifying. She would let characters talk for paragraphs, sometimes even chapters, not only without any rebuttal from other characters (this isn’t very realistic; in real conversation one would expect at least a few interjections of questions, comments, dissentions or agreements), but also the opinions they voice seem to come right from Porter herself rather than be something the character would care about enough to ramble on about for page upon page. Not that I disagreed with all of what she was talking about, it’s just that dialog isn’t the place for that sort of moralizing. Long-winded speeches are better left as essays, or at least part of the third-person narrative.
Second: Some people think Little Scout is cute and incorrigible. This no doubt is what Porter intended the character to be. However I found it tiresome to read all the jargon and “kidspeak,” and the “mystery” of whether is-this-a-boy-or-a-girl was drawn out too long for me to be surprised when the solution finally revealed itself.
One last point didn’t really bother me, but may bother modern readers, so I’ll address that as well. Some might argue that Jamie’s love for the Storm Girl is too insta-love to be believable. This is a justifiable complaint, but although usually this would annoy me, in this case I feel like Porter handled it in such a way as to be romantic and almost magical.
The Storm Girl, whom Jamie meets by chance during a storm at sea at night, barely holds a complete conversation with him and then vanishes into the darkness. In order to save her from dishonor—her boyfriend has left her single and pregnant—Jamie agrees to marry her without even knowing her name. In every encounter with her, she is evasive and ethereal, which makes it sort of a fantasy and therefore forgivable that he falls in love without her without really knowing her that well. And when her identity is eventually revealed, she becomes a very real person and their relationship is much more ordinary and human.
This is a rather calm story, with the main villain being Jamie’s ongoing illness. It’s not just physical injury that keeps him feeling half-dead, it’s also distant regrets and psychological trauma from the war. But like the paralyzed Colin in The Secret Garden, Jamie’s cure comes not from hospitals or medicine, but from the beauty of nature and a simple, wholesome life of helping others and seeking a renewed relationship with God.