Writer's note: I have had plenty of people ask me about this book over the years, so here’s a piece I wrote on it back when it was flying off the shelves. Would love to know what folks thought of this book!
Everyone is talking about Little Bee. Reviewers love it. It is getting full page ads in The New Yorker. Book groups are gobbling it up. Readers say the novel contains a good message about the difficulties of a rapidly changing world couched in great prose. The Chicago Tribune encourages readers not to “fear a dull, worthy novel with a message—this is a suspenseful tale of two women survivors.” I buy the prose angle, but the message left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. The ending pisses me off. (I am detailing the last few pages of the book. If you are planning on reading the book, stop here. But after you’ve read it, come on back, ya’ hear. We want to know what you thought.)
At best, Little Bee could be read as an illustration of Sarah’s–the white woman who decides at 32 she wants to save the world by telling the story of refugee girls in Nigeria– naïveté. In an attempt to save her marriage after pursuing another man, Sarah blindly accepts an all-expense paid trip to Nigeria during its oil wars. Her husband Andrew, a newspaper columnist, tries to warn her of the violence, but she doesn’t believe anything bad can happen to them since they will be at a beach resort. When there, they ignore the resort’s warning and leave the compound. On the beach, the coupe witnesses two guards capturing Little Bee and her sister. Because they are tired of the big fat fuck you they have gotten from the white world, the guards demand the white couple cut off their middle fingers to save the girls’ lives. The husband cannot do it; Sarah does. One girl lives; the other dies. Andrew ends up hanging himself because he cannot bear the two years of guilt.
Andrew dies, and her lover moves into the house. Her son Charlie, who has been wearing a Batman costume the entire novel, takes to Little Bee who ends up on Sarah’s doorstep after fleeing a detention center. In her great epiphany, Sarah decides to pick up the thread of her dead husband’s potential memoir detailing both his experience in Nigeria and the plight of refugee girls and quits her job (even though she is the editor, the strictures of the publishing world hold her back) so she can tell Little Bee’s story to the world. I get it—Sarah wants to save Little Bee, she gave up her finger to save her, but in the end, Sarah is a liability to Little Bee.
Just as Charlie thinks his Batman suit protects him from the “baddies,” Sarah thinks her white skin makes her a superhero. Sarah convinces Little Bee that the former’s whiteness is going to save the latter. When Little Bee is deported, Sarah follows. To assuage Little Bee’s fear, she says “So long as Charlie and I are here, you are safe.” She tells Little Bee no one will hurt her as long as there are white people, as if Sarah’s whiteness were a type of body armor, a Batman suit that protects against military thugs who want their share of oil profits.
But it doesn’t save Little Bee. In fact, it makes her more vulnerable and leads to her capture. Here’s the part that is so frustrating: Little Bee sacrifices herself to save the life of the little white boy Charlie. As if little white boys need saving and more African girls should be sacrificing themselves for the good of those who already have privilege emblazoned on their skin. The worst part is, readers are supposed to believe that Little Bee is happy about this sacrifice, that her most noble moment is saving the life of this boy who just outed her to the police. Earlier in the novel, she isn’t able to save the unnamed refugee who hangs herself upon being freed, and before that in Nigeria Little Bee is unable to save the life of her sister who was raped, had each bone in her body broken, and then was left for the dogs. These two women’s deaths are almost practice for Little Bee’s finale–the saving that really matters, the saving of Charlie. It is only at this moment that Little Bee can laugh and laugh in the sunlight, as if being captured by armed men is freeing. She has made clear throughout the book that these men would kill her if they ever found her again. Her existence is dangerous for them.
As readers, here we are again sitting in the face of a narrative replicated by our desire to think about the developing world from a safe distance: how many sacrifices need to be made on the part of women in the developing world so that all of the white Charlies from England can be saved? If the end of the novel weren’t trying to feel so redeeming, where we get the revelation of Little Bee’s real name that translates into “peace,” as if she is now at peace now that Charlie can live in the globalized world that kills girls like Little Bee. He can have peace as long as she sacrifices her life. I found myself groaning out loud.
Is it really the young white boys who are in the most danger because of globalization?