A Review of The Hive
It is an open secret that women are expected to check their humanity at the obstetrics department door. While real-life mothers are required to “woman up” by taking on the mantle of motherhood without a murmur of complaint, literary mothers are free to inhabit that psychosocial landscape in all manner of circumstances and temperaments. These mothers may be the object of their children’s adoration with their “can-I-help-you” demeanors like Marmee in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, or they may appear in nightmarish scenarios, even after they are deceased, to haunt their offspring with crippling maternal criticism like Sharon Smyth aka “Mummy” in Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. In her new novel, The Hive, Melissa Scholes Young introduces readers to Grace Fehler, a mother who is neither a superwoman sunbeam nor a threatening thunderclap. Grace Fehler is so authentic one wouldn’t be surprised to meet her at a Walmart store in her hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, or at a camp where survivalists learn to prepare for the end of the world.
Grace is, in fact, a right-wing survivalist who is working very hard to ensure that she and her family are equipped to withstand an apocalyptic event, but she is also a survivor in a more Friedanian sense. She is surviving the tedium of being a wife and mother in the early part of the twenty-first century. Grace’s initial encounter with motherhood came when she was an unmarried teenager. Her own mother’s response upon learning of Grace’s pregnancy was that she could “do worse” than marrying Robbie Fehler, the father of her unborn child, “and began sewing a wedding dress.” In keeping with her family’s expectations, Grace marries Robbie and takes on her maternal duties with practicality and ferocity, choosing “to fight for her family because no one else would.”
When the novel opens, she is still married to Robbie and is the mother of four daughters at various stages of adolescence. At this point, Grace views her only weakness as “loving her kids too much” even though they are “ungrateful” and dismiss her efforts to save them. As a “God-fearing Catholic” who believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible, Grace is certain that “the Lord will come in fire” and “wreak his anger in burning rage” as prophesied by Isaiah. In the meantime, Grace deems it her duty to prepare for all manner of impending temporal threats—a devastating weather event, an American civil war, or a catastrophic military attack by a nation hostile to the United States. Leaning on what her own mother taught her about surviving “with limited resources,” Grace remains committed to saving her “little women” by creating survival kits that contain such items as a Marine Raider Bowie knife, fire starter items, hygiene items, a compass, a Bible, and bullets. Along with various types of guns, she also amasses enough food and fuel to last for two years and counts on Robbie to hunt for wild game. Grace has learned to prepare wild-game meat from her father who “could take an animal apart from nose to tail and use every inch.” Proud that this is not exactly a skill most Americans possess, Grace is of the opinion that “most survivalists wanted to test their prepping skills just to show the government how little they need their help.”
In a way, Grace embodies the conservative, working class, Catholic ideal of a devoted mother. And yet, her actions often run counter to her cultural roots. She has an affair with a younger man who both exhilarates and exasperates her. She sometimes needs Valium to cope with her role, particularly after Robbie dies, leaving her the sole guarantor of their daughters’ survival without the requisite means to accomplish that end. Echoing a sentiment many mothers feel, Grace admits, if only to herself, that she finds caring for her family exhausting. There are occasions when simply “getting through a day [feels] like wading through . . . honey—except bitter not sweet.” In one of the most genuine depictions of motherhood I have ever read, Grace reflects on her “desire to run away” from her family, recognizing that once “she became a mother, staying put was the hardest part.” Young writes:
[Grace] had established a birthday breakfast in bed tradition for the girls to mark her love for them and another year she hadn’t run away. She’d heard and seen on TV fancy hotels that delivered room service. The night before, Grace would crawl into bed with the birthday girl and take her breakfast order. She’d deliver her order the next morning on a white-tiled tray with her favorite blue vase filled with fresh cut flowers from her back garden. She’d assemble the sisters and drag Robbie in, too, while they sang “Happy Birthday.” Whatever her little women wanted: french toast with caramel sauce, blueberry muffins, chocolate pancakes, western omelets with peppers, chives, cheddar, and salsa. She said they could have anything. Jules, who hated breakfast food, often ordered homemade soup, usually cheddar broccoli or potato, and Grace obliged. She added Hallmark cards to their trays that said the things she couldn’t quite bring herself to express. Those card writers did it better than she could anyway. She hoped her exterior demonstrations might hide her interior ambivalence. Despite her many flaws, maybe they’d remember that their mom made birthdays a treat.
Keeping her family intact is what Grace values more than anything else, and she expects everyone in the family to step up and do their part. Though other readers might view the title of the book as a metaphor for all of the Fehler’s ventures, including their pest-control business, which Robbie believed could only be led by a male heir, I saw the title as a reference to a more female-dominated Fehler family endeavor—beekeeping. Following Robbie’s death, Grace’s youngest daughter, Kate, takes charge of the beekeeping operation. In a school presentation, Kate tells her classmates that “the hive’s main job in winter is to take care of the queen.” She explains that “in the Fehler family we practice what’s called the rose hive method. It’s based on the idea of colony cooperation, and all the parts of the hive are interchangeable.” Scholes Young ties the threat the beehive faces (both from inside and outside forces) to the Fehler family—each member has a role to play in keeping “the hive” in working order. Though Grace is not a typical “queen bee,” she eventually breaks free of the male dominance that has held sway over her life and becomes the family’s leader.
One method Scholes Young uses to disrupt the patriarchal order that dominated the family during Robbie’s lifetime is to relay The Hive from the alternating perspectives of Grace and her four daughters. She addresses the challenges of this narrative technique by supplying each character with ample details about the struggles they face to keep the story line engaging and move it along at a brisk pace. Though all five of these characters are memorable, Grace is the one who resonated with me most. Having grown up in a misogynistic religion in neighboring Arkansas and having experienced an upbringing fraught with mixed messages, I was familiar with Grace’s cultural background and understood her bouts of subservient and rebellious behavior. Though Grace has conflicting feelings about her role as a mother, she is certain about one aspect—she knows in her heart that she is her family’s fixer. When Robbie’s death leaves the family psychologically and financially unmoored, Grace, who has been trained from birth to stay in the background and prop up men, finds the emotional fortitude as well as the business acumen to rescue herself and her daughters. In fact, Grace Fehler appears to be precisely the mother figure that journalist Susan Maushart longs for in her late-twentieth-century book, The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Everything and Why We Pretend It Doesn’t. Near the end of the book, Maushart muses: “What human beings need to know about mothering is perhaps the greatest story never written.” In her portrayal of Grace Fehler, Scholes Young writes that story by peeling away the mask of motherhood layer by layer, ultimately exposing what Maushart describes as “a countenance of infinite expressiveness.” Through the lens of Grace’s experience, Scholes Young gifts readers with a mother figure who “womans up” in the best conceivable way.