Sue Monk Kidd's novel The Secret Life of Bees and Angela Carter's "The Company of Bees" both feature adolescent female protagonists who escape from a patriarchal world of poverty, abuse and oppression, although the young women end up in very different places. In addition, the stories contain many magical, fantastic and surrealistic elements such as werewolves, witches, magical forests or the three Boatwright sisters acting as shamans or wise women in a matriarchal religion. Carter's short story is a take-off of the Brothers Grimm Little Red Riding Hood tale, even though none of the characters actually have names, while Kidd's novel is set in South Carolina in 1964, at the dawn of the feminist, civil rights and antiwar movements that shaped the entire decade. Indeed, it is a more feminist and matriarchal story than the revised version of Little Red Riding Hood, given that male characters are far less important than Lily Owens and the goddess-like Boatwright sisters, who end up living in a racially-mixed community rub by and for women. This was the 1960s dream of small-scale, human-sized communities, while the Little Red Riding Hood Character ends up literally living in on outlaw or outcast community of werewolves, devils and witches. These creatures do not exactly have egalitarian, democratic or matriarchal attitudes, however, since the story is set in Europe in the late medieval or early modern period, and the young woman ends up giving herself to the werewolf that ate her Bible-reading grandmother.
Both of these stories have strong elements of fantasy and surrealism, such as werewolves or the three black sisters named after months of the year, rather than simply being narratives of the real world as it actually exists. In "The Company of Wolves" neither the country nor village is identified, and not even the characters have names, only roles to play. Obviously the setting is sometime in the distant past, perhaps in the late medieval period, but clearly this is a very alien world and a culture far removed from those of the modern reader. Although the narrator is well acquainted with the local forest, the people of the village and the local myths, superstitions and folklore, at no time is this person given and name, age or gender, but he or she does seem to know the thoughts of Little Red Riding Hood and of the werewolf who seduces her. On the other hand, the setting of The Secret Life of Bees is more familiar -- South Carolina in the summer of 1964 -- and is narrated by Lily Owens. Radio and newspaper reports regularly discuss the major events of the day such as demonstrations, the murder of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi and the Gulf of Tonkin incident, although the tough and practical August Boatwright tunes much of this out because "you cannot fix the whole world" (Kidd 166). Like the wolves, the sisters also live in the woods where they produce honey with magical powers and follow a kind of matriarchal religion. August calls it "the ambrosia of the gods and the shampoo of the goddesses," and Lily finds that she has a natural talent as a beekeeper in this magical garden (Kidd 84). Perhaps they represents shamans, wise women or even goddesses from traditional African religions, and needless to say their adoption of a semi-orphaned white girl would have been highly unusual in the South of that era -- probably even impossible in real life. So would the love affair between the young black student named Zachary Taylor (after a white slave owning president) and a young white girl. In many respects, the home of the three sisters is as removed from any real time and place as the haunted forest of Little Red Riding Hood. Of course the latter finds romance in the arms of a handsome young hunter who also happens to be a werewolf, unlike the original take from the Brothers Grimm in which the woodsman kills the monster after it has eaten grandma and is about to eat the girl.
On one level, these stories are adventure and coming-of-age tales in which young girls who are just entering puberty escape from a patriarchal and authoritarian household and run away into the forest. Perhaps they were originally looking for love or freedom, or simply to get away for a short time, but very soon they find that great surprises and adventures are in store for them -- far more than they bargained for -- but neither Lily Owens nor Little Red Riding Hood ever turn back. For Lily, the catalyst for escape is the beating of Rosaleen by three white men after she attempts to register to vote after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and as such the novel is also a metaphorical story of the various freedom movements of the decades. No such decisive incident causes the Little Red Riding Hood character to run away, although her social and cultural world is one of grinding poverty and violence, and which children tend herds of goats "that provide the homesteads with acrid milk and rancid, maggoty cheese" (Kidd 213). They have no toys and are put to work at an early age, and as the narrator points out, they "do not stay young for long in this savage country" (Kidd 215).
For both female characters, just about any opportunity to escape from the emotional and material poverty of their lives might have seemed like an improvement, or at least a chance worth taking. Werewolves can be sexually alluring creatures and they routinely capture and seduce human beings. When the Devil gives them the power to shape shift, he has them strip naked in the woods and covers them with a magical ointment, which will allow them to turn into wolves for seven years. Little Red Riding Hood is a virgin who has just begun to experience menstruation, while her red shawl is also sexually suggestive. Lily's idea of freedom seems less sexual, however, but centered on the absence of T. Ray and "nobody wanting to beat Rosaleen senseless. Just the rain-cleared woods and the rising light" (Kidd 81). She was grateful for the kindness shown by the Boatwright sisters, for the more interesting work, and even for more variety in her diet. Granny's role in "The Company of Wolves" is essentially conventional and respectable by the standards of the time as they applied to women, since she has no lovers and is so old and frail that death is already near. A "pious old woman," she reads her Bible every day, but Little Red Riding Hood evidently has no desire to end up like her (Carter 216). To be sure, the story does not reveal if the grandmother was always this way or if she was more adventurous when she was younger. Even after death, when were bones are hidden under the bed, she rattles them and attempts to warn her granddaughter away from the wolf, but Little Red Riding Hood will not hear it. At the end of the story, she ends up with the werewolf in granny's own bed, where "sweet and sound she sleeps…between the paws of the tender wolf" (Carter 220). She has found a new home with the wolves in the forest, just as Lily has with the Boatwright sisters.
Men play a far more important role in "A Company of Wolves" than in The Secret Life of Bees, although in the former story of course some of them are really wolf men. In Lily's world, T. Ray represents the racist, white patriarch figure, who abuses her and whose fatherhood she rejects. In fact, even his name is reminiscent of a T. Rex or a kind of carnivorous reptile, although he was religious like the grandmother in "The Company of Wolves." As Lily reports, he had "gone to church for forty years and was only getting worse" (Kidd 2). June Boatwright was supposed to have been married but the groom stood her up on their wedding day, which left her suspicious and embittered. For her part, Rosaleen wishes her "own sorry husband" had done the same (Kidd 102). From the start, Lily had fantasized about escaping her father's abuse and tyranny, just as Little Red Riding Hood may have had fantasies about the handsome young wolf men in the forest. In the end, both girls end of living outside of 'normal' society, the expected female roles, and in Lily's case outside the normal bounds of a white person in the segregated South. While Lily escapes into a matriarchal collective on the eve of the great social, political and cultural revolutions of the 1960s, Little Red Riding Hood has not so clearly broken with patriarchy. She gives herself to the werewolf as a woman is given to a husband, after all, and these wolf men share in the patriarchal culture of this time and place. One of them returns home to find his former wife remarried…