The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924)

‘Now a great adventure may be killing white hippopotami in Africa to one man and commanding his own soul for an hour to another. The reason a great adventure is an adventure is because things that happen are so very simple and so very natural. Why it is great is merely because one has not expected it, not because it could not very well have been expected had one’s wits been working.’


After being wounded in combat during World War I, Jamie MacFarlane is repatriated to California for treatment. After a year in the best military hospital available, he is no better and the authorities decide to stop his treatment, and give his place to another. When he accidentally overhears this plan, he decides his days are numbered, walks out of the place with nothing but the clothes on his back, and turns north to begin his Great Adventure.

With the intention of placing as much distance between himself and the hospital, he makes his way north by hitching rides and finds himself running the gamut of humanity in his various encounters with kind travellers, cruel bandits and pickpockets.

‘…dimly he was beginning to formulate in his mind the feeling that the world is made up of good people and bad people, of selfish people and thoughtful people, of cruel people and kind people, and it was merely a case of luck as to which kind you met when you went on a great adventure.’

By the time he reaches the coast he is at the limit of his endurance and ready to collapse. Seeing a small house in the distance and propelled on by the charm of its situation, he stumbles towards it and as he does, an elderly man reels out clutching his chest.

Jamie pushes past his own weakness and goes to the aid of the stricken man who is known as the Master Bee Keeper. A doctor is called and the Bee Keeper is taken to hospital for emergency surgery. Jamie, with nowhere else to go and no strength left to take him, agrees to look after the Bee Keeper’s home and bee hives. With the help of Little Scout, he learns about the bees and their ways. Margaret Cameron, an elderly neighbour and close friend to the Bee Keeper, helps Jamie recover from his wound and later finds her life inexplicably linked with the young man she comes to respect and admire.

The Keeper of the Bees, written in 1925, was Gene Stratton-Porter’s last novel and is set in California, where she made her home in 1923. Her childhood home was a cabin next to the Limberlost Swamp in Indiana and she was passionately devoted to the study of nature. She had only a little schooling but loved books and was determined to be a writer. Realising that the public would never be satisfied with just natural history studies, she combined a good story with her love of the natural world and the novel Freckles (which has sold almost two million copies) was the result.

I’ve thought much and written a little about self-education, especially in my role as a mother and in teaching my own children, and so was interested to read a little about the author’s background.
She was married, kept a home and had a daughter to look after, but she made time to study and to write without neglecting those responsibilities.
She refused to be moved by editors who said her novels wouldn’t sell if she included the nature references and her work was accurate enough that it was met with commendation from universities and other places of learning.
Speaking of her writing she said:

“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, kindler 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 towards 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.”


Some thoughts:

Whenever I read her books I always feel inspired to get out and do some gardening! She writes about the natural world so beautifully it really is inspiring.
Although I enjoyed this particular book, it isn’t my favourite. So far I’d say that A Girl of the Limberlost is the book I’ve loved the most.

My older girls have read and very much enjoyed most of her novels.
I think her books appeal more to girls, although I read Freckles aloud to three of the boys and they didn’t mind it.
If you’ve never read any of her novels or if you’re looking at using them with children I’d suggest the following two first which were based on her farm childhood:

Freckles – an abandoned orphan is hired to guard an area of valuable timber in the Limberlost swamp. At first he is terrified of the wilderness but over a period of time he becomes fascinated with the birds of the forest and begins his journey of acceptance and healing. A beautiful book which makes a great read aloud for around age 10 and up.

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A Girl of the Limberlost – also set in the Limberlost, is a powerful story in which Elnora Comstock discovers the key to loving her emotionally distant mother. I cried most of the way through this. Reading this story made me want to be a better mother. I don’t know that I’d manage to read this one aloud but I’d have to read it again to see if it has the same effect on me that it did when I first read it. Updated to add: I read this a long time ago & I just glanced over it to refresh my memory. Elanora’s father was unfaithful to his wife at one point and as it is a factor in the mother’s inability to express love to her daughter, it isn’t something easily edited out. I’d save it for an older age group  even though the author is very discrete in her writing.

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The Keeper of the Bees would be better left until around the age of 15 years as are some of her other books (I can’t remember which ones exactly as it’s been a while since I read them) mostly because they probably wouldn’t be appreciated by a younger audience and her style is a little ‘preachy’ in this one. She does deal with slightly more mature content in some of her books but always in a wholesome and discreet manner.

This book is scheduled in Free Reads, Ambleside Online Year 11.

Gene Stratton-Porter’s books are available free online at Project Gutenberg.
Historic site, Indiana State Museum.

The Keeper of the Bees is my entry for a Very Long Classic Novel (i.e. more than 500 pages) for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015.  At 526 pages it just scrapes in.

10 thoughts on “The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924)

  1. What an interesting author. I have not read any of hers yet, but I plan to read Freckles later on, and I'm glad you give us your opinion on the book and the best age for it. I've seen several praising the book.Your descriptions of Freckles and the Girl… are intriguing, specially the second one. I'm sure I will like her books, given I have a short life of appreciating and loving nature I like to cultivate and nourish more, and if it's through good literature, I cannot think of a better combination.


  2. My dd asked me if she could read Freckles but I'd rather save it for a later time – unless I read it aloud. She's a solid reader but I don't know that she'd appreciate the book at this stage. But I'm looking forward to reading some more of her books & revisit those I read a long time ago.


  3. Wow! You've just convinced me to give her a try. I've heard of Girl of the Limberlost but never read it. Thanks for sharing about this author and book at Booknificent Thursday at this week! Always love to have your contributions!Tina


  4. Pingback: Back to the Classics Challenge 2015 – Wrap-up Post | journey & destination

  5. I miss checking out your book reviews! I was looking through some of my bookmarked links for books I read this year for Classics Club and saw this one. Lovely review of a lovely book! This one ties with Girl of Limberlost as my favorites of GSP. It was such a sweet story of redemption and healing. I kept imagining the white cottage on the cliffs of the Pacific coast and all the bee hives and flowers. Such an atmospheric book!

    I will link my review, if interested!


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