Whenever I’d read this outside, wasps would swarm me. And no one else. Maybe it was the giant bee on the cover giving wasps the impression I may be a person of interest.
Caroleena, or Carol, is a twelve year old girl whose family is not broken, but a bit fractured on the sides, and threatening to crack even more. She has an older sister with a different father, and the two of them alongside their parents are dragged along to Carol’s father’s father’s house, her grandpa Serge, who’s now living with an oxygen tube to even breathe. What’s even worse than going somewhere for the entire summer three hours away from your friends, to care for a grandfather with dementia she’s never even met, is the New Mexico ranch he’s lived in his whole life is in the middle of…nothing. Nothing but humid, dry desert, which hasn’t had any rain in 100 years. This ranch is where Carol’s father Raul grew up, before he ran away screaming from it…and him, and it’s clear right away there’s some unresolved tension.
If Serge is not being delusional, he’s being more stubborn than even me. He keeps going on about how bees will bring back the rain and how his sheep tell time. Carol also thinks it’s all bunk. That is, until she notices there are bees that are buzzing around the ranch…and bees shouldn’t be able to live in the desert. And soon Serge ends up telling her, over time, a tale of a glorious town that once existed, a superpowered tree, and younguns in love, and when coincidences take place that connect her world to Serge’s story, she realizes perhaps there’s more to her grandfather than gibberish and fairy tales.
So, what I expected and what I got out of Hour of the Bees were extremely different, and while it goes in an original direction, I also felt that direction could’ve led to more. Hour of the Bees is original, and it’s going to stick for a while, kind of like honey I don’t know is stained on my shorts. Yet I also don’t feel the need to go out and recommend it. Those who do decide to pick up Hour of the Bees may be pleasantly surprised with how much it grips them, if they can make it through a relatively mellow story that will only hook you if you’re fully committed. In other words, very mixed bag.
The book involves fantasy in our official world, and there’s never a sense anything so overwhelming happened that it would’ve been heard about before, allowing the story to seem somewhat possible. The side story between Serge and Raul was surprisingly gripping, enough to make Carol’s father an effective enough side protagonist. The father expresses a lot more feelings and vulnerability than most grown-up male characters, and that was refreshing. There’s also a husband and a wife who are both adamant and polarized about the idea of adventure, and it’s gripping especially when we find the husband feigned excitement for change while constantly delaying. At times, you can’t help but just wonder why in the world Serge is so attached to the land.
The stories Serge tells are more fascinating than the usual side stories meant to teach us more about the world we’re in, primarily because it has fascinating characters, dilemmas, and consideration. But they are also altogether uneven; it’s mentioned this story was in a time over a hundred years ago, and then it forgets about that and takes us to a time where cars were first getting developed, and then we’re told Serge has been alive all the way back then…and yet the characters have iPhones. Doing some simple math, Serge would have to be over 120 years old if he truly lived to witness the last time there was ever water on his land, and as a grandfather, not a great-grandfather, that makes a significant length of time between this family giving birth, and this miscalculation didn’t feel intentional. Also, if we’re supposed to believe every story is true, which is the goal, one glaring flaw is the fact we’re told more people used to live in this desert, a community of people even, but that would imply there’d be other houses or wreckage or at least some sort of sign of humanity other than Serge’s home and barn still left over. It had me confused as to how much was actually real. And I get the stories needed to be told a bit at a time to tell the book properly, but the fact he kept stopping and stopping to resume the story later felt a bit fake. Kind of like it was specifically to tell Carol’s story and not to flow realistically. There should’ve been an explanation for why Serge tells the story only in chunks throughout the summer. It’s also unclear how a character who loves to travel, in Serge’s stories, always had enough money to do what she did.
And three other flaws; we spend a lot of time with Carol catching wind of various bees, with no one else ever seeing them, and I feel like Carol could’ve tried harder to prove there were bees around when everyone said that was impossible. Maybe she could’ve tried to find out where they were coming from? Then there’s Serge’s old bedroom. Only weeks and weeks in does Carol go snooping, where most kids are too curious to hold off that long. There’s also a little fact about the ending that feels too gooey good; it has a flaw about how Carol can’t really properly hang out with her friends anymore, and I think this fact is glossed over too much.
It might sound like I’m really trashing Hour of the Bees, but I will not omit the fact the ending’s really cool (even if there’s a character who shouldn’t have passed out when they did.) Carol does daring acts, there’s a fair amount of story satisfaction, and there’s some surprising sweetness from characters who were mostly in the back row. If you’re interested in Hour of the Bees, I say go for it. There are a fair bit of people who love this book and were utterly captivated by its love for history, fantasy, family bonds, and the involving ending. But some unclear irregularities and a sense more could’ve been put into this world bring the final grade quite down.
If you like this, I’d try Mosquitoland by David Arnold