I really don’t want to publish negative reviews, but in this case, I am making an exception because of how a particular medical condition was handled in an otherwise GORGEOUS book. The writing is beautiful. It’s amazing. The plot, however, ends up going down the same offensive path that Hollywood frequently uses when discussing dementia. For that reason, I’m going to post my thoughts here about Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar. (Also, I’ve had this post in my “drafts” for seven months because I was feeling conflicted about actually posting this one, but I stand by my thoughts, so I’m posting it now.)
Eagar, Lindsay. Hour of the Bees. Candlewick Press, 2016. 360 pages. Hardcover $14.49, ISBN 978-0-7636-7922-4
TL;DR: Do I recommend this? No.
Genre: Magical Realism
Carol wanted to spend the summer between her sixth and seventh grade years like most other tweens would — pool parties, fun at the mall, hanging out with friends. Instead, she and her family must pack into their cars and drive out into the middle of nowhere so that they can help Serge, her grandfather, move into an assisted living facility for people with dementia. Carol has never met Serge, so this difficult mission is made even harder. Armed with the Seville’s pamphlet on how to handle loved ones with dementia, Carol repeats the instructions to herself as she helps pack up the house, complete minor repairs, and babysit her grandfather. Meanwhile, Grandpa Serge tells her the story of a magical tree and the bees who stole the lake and never returned. As the story develops, Carol finds more and more real-life objects that have a part to play in Serge’s story. Is it fiction, or is there magic waiting to be found?
Critical Evaluation/Reader’s Comments:
Warning: Don’t start this one if you don’t want to cry in public!
This book addresses a topic that is very close to me, so my review comes from two places: not only does it come from me as a school librarian looking for a good book for my kids to read, it also comes from me as a person, the loved one of someone currently living with dementia. This book breaks my personal “No books about dementia” rule, but since there really are so few books out there dealing with the actual situation of caring for someone who lives with dementia (or being the child of those caregivers), I wanted to see what this one was like.
Dementia is a very real problem that many people — doctors, businesses, and the media — tend to ignore, downplay, or misrepresent. For someone going through helping a family member who is living with dementia, the most common media representations of dementia (i.e., “comic forgetfulness” or catatonia) are unhelpful at best and insulting at worst. Eagar explores the real-life drama and tragedy of helping to move someone into assisted living, especially when that person has zero desire to move and would rather die on their own property. To make reading this review easier, I’m going to split up the things that I liked and the things that I didn’t. There will be some spoilers, those spoilers will be in white. Other plot points will be discussed in visible (black) text if they are not major spoilers.
I LOVED —
This story has delicious amounts of magical realism. Serge tells a spellbinding story about a magical tree and a green-glass lake. The moments when Serge is telling his tale are wonderful. Eagar also captures a middle-schooler’s voice beautifully. If I could separate out the specifics of how Serge’s dementia is represented and treated, this would be a 5-star book.
My Problem: Dementia (/care options for people with dementia) is not represented respectfully in this novel:
One aspect of this book that I did not enjoy was that the move into assisted living is presented as the Worst Case Scenario; media frequently vilifies families who move someone into assisted living. In reality, assisted living is a place for people to receive the care that they need when their families are unable to provide it in-home. This may simply be a touchy subject for me, but to have yet another author use this storyline was disappointing. Kids need to read about when assisted living is the best case scenario, too, as it truly appears to be for Serge. When every novel or television show or movie shows assisted living to be the WORST thing you can do to someone (I mean, do you even love them? How could you?), it gets tough to explain to folks that really, sometimes it is the best thing.
SPOILER IN WHITE TEXT; I talk about the very end of the book here, so only highlight if you want to know how it ends: Carol, horrified by her grandfather’s assisted living facility, busts him out late at night and drives him back to his home. There, Serge sustains a fatal rattlesnake bite. Serge is given a “good death;” albeit sad, he is able to die victorious after being on his ranch one last time and not having to return to the Seville; he gets to die on his own terms, not in the “prison” his family sent him to. This is a deus ex machina used by many writers who play up the “assisted living is the worst” trope, and I was very disappointed to see it in this book. Saying goodbye to a family home is a sad but often necessary moment in the care for someone with dementia. To have Serge be able to die “victoriously” on his own property rather than remaining in the assisted living facility his son has moved him into may confuse younger readers into thinking that what Carol did was right and that her parents were wrong.
ALSO — Does the dog die? : YES – Ines passes away the night before Serge has to move to the Seville. It’s a tearjerker for sure.
I appear to be alone with regards to my feelings about the way dementia was handled. Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Common Sense Media have all positively reviewed the book. I agree absolutely that the writing of this novel is beautiful. I am completely sincere when I say that this was almost a 5-star book for me. The ending, however, undid that rating.
Eisenhart, M. (n. d.). Hour of the bees (Review of the book Hour of the Bees). Common Sense Media. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/book-reviews/hour-of-the-bees#
Kirkus Reviews. (2016, Jan. 9). HOUR OF THE BEES (Review of the book Hour of the Bees). Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/lindsay-eagar/hour-of-the-bees/
Publishers Weekly. (2015, Dec. 7). Hour of the bees (Review of the book Hour of the Bees). Publishers Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-7636-7922-4