Right off the bat something feels off - for instance, the land is parched dry from a drought, and Serge still has Inés, the same dog he has had for 30 years (that's 210 in dog years). And bees have been buzzing around Carol's head ever since they got to the ranch, but Serge tells her there are no bees, that it hasn't rained in 100 years, so drought means no flowers, no flowers means no bees.
Carol also bears an uncanny resemblance to her grandmother, Rosa, who died on the very day she was born. At times, Serge thinks she is Rosa, otherwise he insists on calling her Carolina and admonishes her for knowing nothing about her Mexican roots, always asking "Why do you spit on your roots, chiquita?"
Carol knows that her father, Raul, and Serge had a falling out and that Raul left home at a young age, but she has no idea what happened. There is still a lot of tension between father and son, but soon, Carol and Serge begin to bond over the stories her tells her, stories. The stories always begin with Once upon a time, there was a tree and are about a tree with magical life-giving power, around which Serge and Rosa's love story happened; and which kept Rosa, the only villager with wanderlust, safe as she repeatedly traveled the world wearing a simple bracelet made from its bark, and always coming back to Serge.
In-between Serge's stories, there is hard work to do so that the ranch can be sold. Long days are rewarded by her mother's wonderful Mexican cooking, something her never does at home. But the days also increase the tension between Carol and her 17 year-old half sister Alta, who refuses to accept step-father Raul's family as hers, and who only seems interested in her friends and her own indulgent father.
As the summer progresses, Serge's tales sound more and more like fairy tales. Was it possible that this desolate New Mexican mesa was once a vibrant village, with villagers who could cheat death simply by living in the shade of their beautiful tree? And could the bees really take away the village's lake drop by drop, leaving behind a parched crater, and causing the 100 year drought? And why? Maybe, Serge's stories really are just a product of his deteriorating mind.
Or maybe not. Rosa, he tells Carol, was always followed by a swarm of bees, and now, little by little, they are beginning to follow her, too. But the once beautiful tree is just a trunk now with no branches or blossoms. If the bees are coming back, can the land and the tree somehow be brought back to life?
Hour of the Bees is so not what I was expecting. I had thought it would be about half sisters learning to accept each other in a desert setting. Clearly, this is a story that relies on character to move it along and I thought the characterization was really spot on. Told in the first-person by Carol, the reader will find her a very sympathetic character in this coming of age story as she learns to embrace her cultural heritage and to realistically change and grow. I found Alta accurately annoying as the older sister (at times, reminding me a little too much of my own older sister). She and Carol have some definite issues to be resolved. Raul, Serge's son, really annoyed me, he is so angry at Serge, he can't even look him in the face, so he, too, has issues to deal with. What better place to put all these unresolved issues and problems than the hot, dry desert.
Serge is my favorite character. His dementia helps move the story along, as he alternates calling Carol "Caro-leen-a" and Rosa, though I never felt that his deteriorating mind had been exploited and reduced to a plot device. Serge is a nice, fully-developed (ironically) character and I felt myself drawn to him just as Carol is.
When I first started reading Hour of the Bees, I was reminded of one of my favorite books, House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. Eagar uses magical realism just as skillfully, making you feel that it's all possible. And magical realism is one of my favorite genres and I think this a wonderful introduction to it for young readers who are accustomed to stories about straight magic, i.e. Harry Potter (which I also love).
You can find a wonderful discussion guide, ideal for teachers and book clubs, at Candlewick Press.
This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley