The Keeper of the Bees
by Gene Stratton-Porter

Book review by Jaye
Copyright © 2001 by Jaye

          First published in 1925, The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter is about a WWI vet, Jamie MacFarlane, who has a gaping chest wound and has been at a veteran's hospital a year with no improvement.

          He overhears plans to send him to a tuberculosis camp in order to give his bed at the veterans' hospital to someone with a better chance of getting well. He walks out. Nothing but the clothes on his back. He hitchhikes and walks (sore feet and all!) to the Pacific Ocean, and just when believes he can go no farther, he spies a beautiful house and garden.  He is ready to go knock and ask if he might rest there for a few minutes when an elderly man stumbles out clutching his chest, and asks Jamie to help him.

          Jamie does, and is put in charge of the house, garden and apiary until the Bee Master might be able to return. Jamie, barely able to care for himself, gets the aid of his new next door neighbor, Margaret Cameron, and of a neighbor child called The Scout Master and begins to settle in. During a storm he meets a girl in trouble and promises to help her. She says she needs a marriage license and a name for an unborn child, and Jamie, believing he will die soon, marries the girl the next day, and she promptly disappears into the city crowd.

          Given the fresh air, the good food provided by Margaret Camoron, the interesting work, and the medicinal properties of the Pacific Ocean, Jamie finds himself recovering in heart and body, to the point where he realizes that he is not going to die. Meanwhile, he is left haunted by the woman and finds himself falling in love with her.

          Then the Bee Master dies and leaves Jamie half the garden and the Scout Master the other half. Jamie has to face himself and the fact that he has a living and a life, if only he will claim it. Not only a living and a life, but somewhere, a wife! He must look inside himself and find the strength and resources to sort out this life that has been handed to him out of the Great Mystery of God.

          He has become The Keeper of the Bees. He must find the wisdom to sort out the various threads of relationships he has stumbled into. The key to all these threads is sorting out the conflicts that lie in his own soul.

          This is Gene Stratton-Porter's last book -- she was killed in an automobile crash the following year. It is a bit over-moralizing in spots by today's standards, and yet in comparison with her compatriots (for instance, Grace Livingston Hill) it is a model of self-restraint. Yet the whole theme of the book, that of consequences of actions, of facing one's Maker with fear or with a glad laugh and a smile, is a nicely-drawn bit of myth-making that hit me very powerfully when I first read the book at age 13, and which moved me again this year by drawing me back into that 13-year-old space.

          The book was written at the height of the Roaring Twenties, when plenty of young women were experimenting with sexuality, and when birth control was not available in any form but condoms, and condoms were condemned as immoral because they allowed women to sin without risking the consequences that Eve had brought down upon her entire gender.

          The book was my introduction to a world that was different from what I lived in, and it quite hooked me on antique books. It taught me to look at the publication date on everything not a current bestseller.

          I highly recommend The Keeper of the Bees, not because I agree with everything Stratton-Porter writes, but because she she is such a time machine into a world eighty years in the past. Read enough time machines, and you have a very, very good view of the vista of change. Read enough time machines, and you can project with some accuracy where we are likely to be in five, ten, fifteen years in the future if things keep going.

          The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

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