I just finished reading a really good book, The Keeper of the Bees, by Gene Stratton-Porter, and as always when I finish a book I’ve been completely immersed in, it’s hard to decide what to read next. With the publication of Harper Lee’s book, Go Set a Watchman, I am very tempted to start that one right away. However, I’m scared! I’m afraid to read it because it might damage my relationship with Atticus Finch, one of the most decent men in literature, and it feels to me that decent men in literature are somewhat of a rarity these days. Three come to my mind immediately: Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird; Danny’s sparky Dad in Danny, the Champion of the World; and now I can add Jamie MacFarlane in The Keeper of the Bees. These are kind, caring, compassionate men who are not afraid to take a stand, who give wholeheartedly, who are not afraid to cry, and who remind us of all that is good in the world. I think I’ll wait to read blogging friends’ reviews before I start the new Harper Lee…just in case.
The Keeper of the Bees, one of Stratton-Porter’s last novels before her untimely death in 1924, was also about a decent man. Jamie MacFarlane was an American war hero (of Scottish descent) who had been seriously wounded in the war and who had just spent the last two years of his life in a military hospital with wounds that would not heal. His spirits were deeply damaged, too, and the doctors treating him had given up on finding a way to help him. He overheard them talking about his case and deciding to send him to a sanitorium for the terminally ill. He decided to walk out of the hospital, since he is going to die anyway, because he would rather die out in nature than in the sanitorium. So he began his “great adventure.”
As he had made his way down the driveway from the hospital to the road, it had occurred to Jamie MacFarlane that for a man in his condition to walk out of the only shelter on earth to which he was entitled without a penny in his pockets was a Great Adventure.
The story is a poignant search for self and for meaning in the face of death, and in the process of that search, he also finds health and life. It’s a very human story, all about relationships and about the deepest questions we all face. It’s also a book that I’d describe as maybe a little “old-fashioned,” because there’s a bit of moralizing, a bit of preaching that were more common in stories written in the late 1800s/early 1900s. But I was so drawn to this kindly character, Jamie, and so immersed in Stratton-Porter’s beautiful descriptions of the natural world, that I couldn’t put it down. I just wanted so much for Jamie to get well and to find the happiness he so deserved.
A passage late in the novel details Gene Stratton-Porter’s intent in writing this story, and describes the decent man young Jamie MacFarlane became:
“To my way of thinking and working, the greatest service a piece of fiction can do any reader is to leave him with a higher ideal of life than he had when he began. If in one small degree it shows him where he can be a gentler, saner, cleaner, kindlier man, it is a wonder-working book. If it opens his eyes to one beauty in nature he never saw for himself and leads him one step toward the God of the Universe, it is a beneficial book, for one step into the miracle of nature leads to that long walk, the glories of which so strengthen even a boy who thinks he is dying, that he faces his struggle like a gladiator.”