The novel’s protagonist and narrator. Lily is a fourteen-year-old white girl born on the Fourth of July in 1950. When she was four, she accidentally killed her mother, Deborah. Along with her abusive father, T. Ray, whom she cannot call “Daddy,” she lives on a peach farm in rural South Carolina. Isolated and insecure, Lily fears that she lacks all femininity and imagines that her mother is her guardian angel, watching over and loving her from beyond. Lily loves and trusts Rosaleen, a black housekeeper who helped raise her, and she finds the racism so prevalent in the south confusing. Over the course of the novel, she grows into a loved and loving young woman, who sees beyond skin color. Lily’s most prized possessions are a few things of her mother’s she found in her father’s attic: a picture of Deborah, a wooden picture of a black Mary, and a pair of white gloves. She loves to write and hopes to one day become a writer. Late in the novel, she finds a close friend and stand-in mother in August Boatwright and her sisters, June and May. In addition, her femininity blooms when she realizes her attraction to Zach, a young black man who helps out on the Boatwright farm. Lily also finds herself enchanted by bees, first by those living inside the walls of her room and later by those on August’s farm.
A middle-aged black woman who welcomes Lily into her home. August lives in a pink house in Tiburon, South Carolina, with her two sisters, May and June. Together, May, June, and August are known as “the calendar sisters.” August has chosen not to marry because she does not want to give up the autonomy of her independent womanhood. August works as a beekeeper and honey/beeswax manufacturer on a 28-acre farm she inherited from her grandfather. By selling honey, she supports herself and sisters, as well as Lily and Rosaleen, once they come to stay at her house. August is a warm and loving lady, skinnier than Rosaleen but still larger-than-life to Lily. As a young woman, August attended school and worked as a teacher, then she became a housekeeper in the home of Deborah, Lily’s mother, when Deborah was a child. August created an alternate religion for herself and her friends based around a statue of a black Mary that has been passed through generations of her family. She teaches Lily about this religion and spirituality in general, as well as about beekeeping and love.
Lily’s nanny and first friend. Rosaleen is a black woman who originally worked as a peach picker in the fields belonging to Lily’s father. Six months after Lily’s mother died, T. Ray took Rosaleen out of the fields and assigned her to taking care of Lily. She is a very large woman who often burps and speaks her mind clearly, openly, and without self-censorship. Proud and determined, Rosaleen quickly stands up for herself, even in the face of violent, racist men. She loves Lily, helping to mediate between Lily and her abusive father, and she goes along somewhat reluctantly with Lily’s plans out of a combination of love and pity for the young girl. Later, she becomes close friends with May Boatwright and easily becomes part of the Daughters of Mary religious community in Tiburon. Rosaleen did have a husband at one point, although she found him to be stupid.
Lily’s mother. Deborah was shot accidentally by four-year-old Lily. At the time, she had already left Lily and T. Ray and gone to stay with her old housekeeper, August Boatwright, in Tiburon. Deborah was an attractive and lively woman who became depressed living in Sylvan and had trouble acting as a responsible mother.
Lily’s best friend and romantic interest. Zach is a junior at the black high school in Tiburon and plays football for the school team. He is handsome and has one dimple when he smiles. He is ambitious and hopes to be a lawyer someday, although he has never heard of a black lawyer. Sensitive Zach forms an attachment to Lily, giving her gifts and positive attention. He works on the Boatwrights’ farm to earn money for college, to buy a car, and to be self-reliant.
Lily’s father. A peach farmer, T. Ray was once passionately in love with Lily’s mother, to whom he was married. After his wife left him and later died, he became a bitter and resentful man. He abuses and punishes Lily by making her kneel on dried grits, making fun of her attempts to better herself through reading, and refusing to offer her any signs of love. T. Ray takes out his general resentment and bitterness on Lily, the product of his lost love.
Sister of August and May and part owner of the Boatwright farm. June finds it difficult to like Lily at first because she resents August’s involvement in the white world as a housekeeper for Lily’s mother. In her spare time, June volunteers as a cellist for the local hospital, where her music soothes dying patients. She is involved in a love affair with Neil, to whom she refuses to get married. Stubborn and strong-headed, June eventually shows herself to be kind and caring as well.
Sister of August and June and a friend and roommate to Rosaleen. May once had a twin sister, April, who was depressed and committed suicide at a young age. Since that time, May has become extremely sensitive and prone to depression. When sad, May sings the song “Oh! Susanna” and removes herself to spend time alone by a special wall she has constructed outside the house—her own “wailing wall.” A very warm person, May spends most of her time taking care of the Boatwright house by cooking and cleaning for the other ladies. She eventually kills herself in the river.
A very tall man who courts June Boatwright. Neil helps around the farm but lives elsewhere. He is kind to Lily and one of the few grown men in the novel that is gentle and honest.
A group of African Americans who have created their own religion, based around the Boatwright statue of the black Mary. Although most group members are women, there are some men who attend the Daughters get-togethers and celebrations. Lily and Rosaleen participate in this religion while staying at August’s farm.
One of the Daughters of Mary. She dresses in bright colors and wears large, ornate hats.
One of the Daughters of Mary. Like her mother, Queenie, she dresses in fancy clothes and wears a decorative hat.
One of the Daughters of Mary. She is the hat maker and wears the most outlandish hats of all. Lunelle makes a hat for Lily.
One of the Daughters of Mary. Her handicraft skill is crocheted octopuses.
One of the Daughters of Mary.
One of the Daughters of Mary. She is married to Otis Hill and brings him along to most of the Daughters of Mary events.
The wife of Sugar-Girl. A kind black man, Otis often attends the Daughters of Mary get-togethers.
Zach’s mentor and Tiburon’s principal lawyer. A white man with a successful practice, Clayton takes an interest in Zach and encourages him to become a lawyer. His office is decorated with pictures of him with his daughter. Clayton is also an old friend of August’s.
May’s twin sister. She committed suicide in childhood by shooting herself with a shotgun. Her childhood temperament was very similar to May’s adult temperament: overly sensitive and depressed.
The minister of a church in Sylvan. Lily attended his church when she was growing up. A pious man with racist tendencies, Brother Gerald is also rather foolish, as Lily has no problem tricking him. He is also self-righteous and petty.
The ringleader of Rosaleen’s attackers. Franklin is known in Sylvan as one of the most violent and reactionary racists.
The Sylvan cop that arrests Lily and Rosaleen. His friends call him “Shoe.” He is passively racist.
Mr. Forrest’s secretary. Slightly racist, Miss Lacy finds the fact that Lily lives with black women very disturbing.
The daughter of Clayton, the lawyer. She is a year younger than Lily and eventually becomes her friend in Tiburon.
The jail keeper and wife of the cop Avery Gatson.
The name Lily uses for her grandmother when she arrives in Tiburon.
The name Lily uses for her aunt when she arrives in Tiburon.
The clerk at Frogman General Store. He is a small, gullible, pious man.