“I liked your book, but it would have been better if I was in it.” Josh, who was probably eight or nine at the time, had just finished the new story in a series I wrote for his school. He wanted to talk to me about it, but he had an agenda. Ah, critics.
That moment came back to me today as I was watching the bees in my garden and thinking about Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar. I’ve written a few times recently about feeling like some books–not this one–check off a bunch of boxes. Death? Check. Long-term illness? Check. Bully? Check. Insert a predictable confrontation tied to someone’s outsider status, and you’ve got it. It’s frustrating to me as a reader, mainly because I feel kind of set up. I barely know the character and I’m being hammered with not just the death of a parent, but then the best friend disappears or Grandma gets cancer or Aunt Cassie is killed in action.
I know. Writing is about those moments after something has happened, and so much is happening all the time. Maybe it’s not enough to lose a friend to growing up or struggle with figuring out who you are. You’ve got to do it while juggling knives and staring down a drug dealer.
Hour of the Bees is not one of those books. It started slowly, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it at first. (The topic of the book is one very close to my reality right now, and sometimes I like a little escape from that.) Carolina, her stepsister and her parents go to help Grandpa Serge clear out his ranch before moving him to a care facility in the city. Grandpa has dementia, and that might mean he’s not in touch with reality. The ranch is hot, dry, and full of faded parts of a past life. Carolina could not be less interested; she’d rather be at the pool with her friends.
Then Grandpa starts telling her stories about a magical tree. Is it really a story about his life? Is he making it up? Is he just confused? Why does he keep telling Carolina to not forget her roots?
Magical realism doesn’t always work. If you do it poorly, you end up with something predictable and even silly. However, Hour of the Bees does it well, so well that you’re swept up with Carolina, wondering if there might be some truth to Grandpa’s stories. By the end, the tone and flow of the book reminded me of The Underneath by Kathi Appelt and I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín, books I loved for very different reasons.
I have plenty of weaknesses as a writer and a person, and it’s rare my critics are able to condense their comments to something as specific as Josh did. I choose to only write about books I like here, because I know how hard it is to sit down and write a story, even a relatively short and simple one. I try to remember how moody readers can be, me included. I think of the power of telling people what they do well. I look for the moments that make a character real to me. I guess I have my own boxes to check.
Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar