South Carolina at the height of segregation, and racial tension is at its highest. Lily, a fourteen year old living on a peach farm with a harsh father and a black servant (her only friend), longs more than ever before for her mother - a mother she believes she killed.
One afternoon, Lily accompanies Rosaleen to register to vote. However, three white men stand in the way. Refusing to kowtow, Rosaleen gives them a piece of her mind but unfortunately gets more back than that.
Lily helps Rosaleen break free from the hospital in which she's being kept (after said men came to the prison to beat her to within an inch of her life). The only route Lily can think of going is a route marked out by a picture of a black Virgin Mary.
The road leads them to the home of three beekeeping sisters; August, June and May Boatwright. They offer sanctuary to Lily and Rosaleen, as well as (in August's case) warmth.
Rosaleen is entirely at ease straightaway, but Lily takes a little longer since she has lied about why she has come. Fearing she might be sent away, she keeps the truth inside but her suspicions are that August knows.
Free from her father's fearsome shadow, Lily is able to rebuild herself with the help of August, whom shows her the ways of beekeeping. By the time Lily realises she needs to tell the truth, however, terrible events occur that make her hold the truth tighter still.
It's refreshing, though, to see a historical novel about black women whom are the mistresses of their own lives, rather than trying to display their own identity within the constraints of their white masters and mistresses. The women clash and bond and look after each other, and there's no question of August, June and May being beholden to any one else. They are well known and respected in the community and the honey business does not suffer with the knowledge that the creators are black. Relationships - familial, romantic, platonic - form the heart of this story with an undercurrent of racial issues being explored. It's a rich novel with substance and depth, with much of what we know about the time being questioned within the microcosm of the Boatwright family.