One of the best ways of traveling across America is via the imagination of others.
Using eight books in my TBR pile, I'm journeying from the Farallon Islands off the coast of California to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginian via Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri "and Kentucky, writing reviews as I go.
"Hour Of The Bees", the third book in my journey across fictional America, takes me to the Painted Desert in New Mexico.
New Mexico is one of my favourite States. It's managed to keep its wild beauty. The Painted Desert is one of the most spectacular places I've visited. It manages to be both stark and welcoming, as if it's daring you to have the courage to live there.
Despite this, I found myself delaying starting "Hour Of The Bees". I even considered finding an alternative book in my TBR pile to continue my journey.
Well, the blurb sounds a little miserable, a twelve year old girl forced to spend the summer with a grand father she barely know and who is sinking into the quicksands of dementia. I've already lost someone to dementia. It's a very grim business.
I'm ashamed to admit that I was also put off by the cover. Could the publishers have put any less effort into it? It's bland, amateur, and not even slightly intriguing.
So why did I read it? It's read by Almarie Guerra, who did a wonderful job with "The Water Knife".
She does a beautiful job with "Hour Of The Bees" and I soon found myself absorbed into the world of twelve year old Hispanic girl, spending the summer on a dying ranch in the desert, preparing to move her soon-to-be-lost-to-dementia grandfather for a move to a home.
During the summer, her grandfather tells her the story of his life, starting always with "Once upon a time". The story has strong elements of magical realism or perhaps allegory would be a kinder description, which I normally find tiresome because it so far removed from reality and is obsessed with being clever. Lindsay Eager showed me that it doesn't have to be like that.
She introduces a splendid ambiguity to the story telling by having the tale told by an old man with dementia to a girl with limited experience of life. This ambiguity left me to make up my own mind and helped me to concentrate on the emotional truths of the novel: that life must be embraced to be lived, that love is the anchor of hope and that a place can have a soul that we can push roots into and be nurtured by.
This is a summer of change for the young girl, making her re-examine who she is and who she wants to become. We see her relationship with her (step)sister shift shape from day to day, her empathy for her parents deepen and her lover for her grandfather and the land he's given his life to blossom. She focuses on time and how we measure it and comes to understand that our approach to time changes who we are.
The pace of the story-telling is perfect: slow enough to give the sense of time passing on a remote desert ranch and fast enough to keep you wondering what will happen next. Each moment is threaded between the pearls of "Once upon a time..." story telling that change the context of the present moment and the meaning of everything that passed before.
"Hours Of The Bees" is a fresh, original and pleasantly non-didactic book that made me think, cry and occasionally laugh. I was surprised to see that it's being marketed (and winning prizes) as a children's book, not because it isn't a good book for children to read, but because I think it's range and appeal is much broader than that.
I enjoyed my summer on the this ranch in the Painted Desert. I recommend you spend some time there.