The vital role of bees in global food production is widely recognized and gardeners plant flowers to attract and nourish these pollinators. In her debut novel crazy honeyKatie Welch casts an imaginative look at beekeeping and how it binds a family.
Welch writes fiction and teaches music in Kamloops, BC. Growing up in Ottawa, she chose Lanark County, the fertile countryside near Ottawa, as the setting for her novel.
In crazy honeyMelissa Makepeace and her adopted sister Daphne run Hopetown Farm, founded by Melissa’s parents Charlie and Jill. Charlie disappeared when Melissa was 11; when she asked if he would come back, her mother said no – he was alive but had abandoned them. Despite her mother’s words, Melissa always half-expects Charlie to suddenly reappear, walking through the farm gate with a believable explanation for his long absence.
Unable to fully accept that Charlie is likely dead, she talks to the local police about the evidence they initially gathered when they tried to locate him. She discovers that some people who say they saw Charlie’s old truck in a nearby town, or think they saw him drinking at a local bar, are now changing their statements.
Jill expertly runs the farm after Charlie leaves, aided by their farmhand Joseph Sommerton. “Joseph quietly took up jobs Charlie had given up. The farmhand seemed magical when strong arms were needed, silent lifting or towing, restraining a stubborn, aggressive animal or repairing a broken down truck.” When she was young, Melissa considered Joseph to be a surrogate atom, but their relationship deteriorates over time and Melissa now feels that he usually doesn’t follow her orders. This includes her request to help her harvest honey from the farm’s hives.
Melissa needs a hand with the honey this fall, because Beck Wise, her fellow beekeeper and lover, has been gone all summer. She has no idea why he left and is not very happy to see him again when he returns to the farm on her birthday in September. Beck is untidy, very thin and, most enigmatically, unable to tell her where he has been for the past three months.
Beck has no clear idea of what happened to him, but clings to the impossible belief that he lived and worked like a bee in a beehive. “I’m telling you, it feels like I was bees. An entire bee colony. Like all I did this summer was drink nectar, collect pollen, tend to larvae, fan the hive, look after my queen – I was bees.
He loves taking care of bees and has learned a lot about it. Yet he realizes that his inexplicable absence, and the mental images that haunt him, are far from normal. His mother, Eurydice de Famosa, is a Cuban high priestess of Santeria. She stimulates the fantasies of her sensitive son and does not exclude the possibility of a human turning into an animal or insect. Beck’s father, Canadian professional photographer Matthew Wise, believes his son’s mental confusion must be the result of a physical or mental injury, and insists on taking Beck to a doctor friend in Toronto for tests.
Beck’s obsession with bees brings him into contact with neighbor Marjorie Hill. Marjorie, a widow in her 70s, lives in a dilapidated house but keeps her closets in top condition. She teaches Beck about the different roles that bees have, how to safely handle the frames and extrude the honey, and the types of diseases that can kill a hive quickly. “That one afternoon at Marjorie’s apiary gave him the confidence he needed to start keeping bees.”
Marjorie also introduces Beck to deli ban, a dark orange honey that she believes has potent medicinal properties.
Melissa worries about Beck’s mental state and struggles to finish the harvest and prepare the farm for the coming winter. Despite the setbacks on the farm, she is determined to organize and hold the annual harvest banquet.
Welch’s descriptions of Hopetown Farm and the surrounding countryside provide a visual backdrop to crazy honey‘s characters. The information she includes about the life of bees also gives meaning to the plot. There are a few questions left unanswered, such as the basics of Jill and the taciturn Joe’s relationship, but overall the novel ends on a sweet note.
Andrea Geary is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg.