The first chapter also introduces the tension between history and literature that recurs throughout the novel. As Lily watches the signing of the Civil Rights Act on television with Rosaleen, she wonders whether to be happy, because Rosaleen is happy, or anxious, because Lily realizes that the equality suggested by the act might, in fact, make life more difficult for Rosaleen. Kidd carefully reminds us of dates so that we might bring our sense of history to bear on our reading: we know that in 1964 racism plagued America, particularly in the South; we know that the Civil Rights Act helped decrease but did not eradicate racism or discrimination. This knowledge of real historical circumstance makes the fictional, complicated relationship between Lily, a white girl, with Rosaleen, a black woman, more understandable. On the one hand, Lily feels a lot of love for Rosaleen and looks to her for guidance. On the other, Lily evidences both subtle prejudice and a teenager’s sarcasm, as when she ignores or rolls her eyes at Rosaleen. Throughout the novel, Kidd will tie an actual historical event to a fictional one, as when Lily mentions Martin Luther King’s arrest in chapter 1 or when Lily tells readers that she shares her birthday with the United States (July 4). This mixing of history and literature implies that the two disciplines compliment one another: history gives us facts, but literature helps us understand and relate to those facts by placing them within the context of a story.
Another important theme from chapter 1 concerns the importance of motherly love. Since Deborah is dead, Lily has come to rely on Rosaleen for some maternal care, and, to some degree, Lily considers Rosaleen to be a surrogate mother. Without a real mother, and plagued with guilt about her role in Deborah’s death, Lily has developed many self-image and self-esteem issues. She lacks friends and feels extremely unfeminine. To some degree, these feelings plague most young women in all situations. As a bildungsroman, The Secret Life of Bees will chronicle the ups and downs of Lily’s coming-of-age. Because Lily lacks the support of a maternal guide, she has nowhere to turn to express these insecurities. She cannot turn to T. Ray; he is a void, an echo of her insecurities, a man lost in his own bitterness. He fails to offer her love, understanding, or even a safe place to express her fears and frustrations. From this early point in the novel, Lily’s main personal struggle is with coming to terms with her missing mother and of developing as an independent woman regardless of this lack. This struggle becomes the dramatic background of the book, the essential struggle behind Lily’s entire experience of growing up.