Synopses & Reviews
The year is 1855. Gordon McKay, a man of means, has decided to lead an expedition from Massachusetts to Kansas, where he plans to make a fortune keeping bees. McKay's imagination has been fired by a book about bees: their incedible fecundity and productivity. Presumably one hive can be expanded into several each year, and each hive can produce 100 pounds of honey. His bees will create an empire for McKay.
His wife, Catherine, and her brother, Colin, go along. They travel via New Orleans, where McKay buys a steamboat and invites a group of Germans to join them. (The Germans are to make music boxes for sale until the bees start producing.) At the last minute they take aboard a pair of alligators, with the intention of breeding them, and the journey upriver begins merrily. But before long it is beset with disasters they are attacked by Missouri border ruffians and their boat runs aground. One calamity, however, turns out to be a blessing. When their alcoholic pilot abandons them, the remarkable William Sewell turns up to take his place the most humane of men and a passionate naturalist. It is thanks to Sewell that the newcomers, once they have reached Kansas and are settled into the grand hotel that has been built to receive them, discover the marvelous and unfamiliar plants and creatures thriving on the prairie.
Sewell knows about bees, too, and when McKay's bees succumb to a mysterious disease, he urges a quick trip back east to consult the author of the book that started the whole thing. Along the way Colin falls in love with a mysterious and magical girl; left alone in Kansas, Catherine, missing her brother far more than she misses her husband, toys with what consolation she can find. And by the time they are all reunited in the West, Sewell has had a head-on confrontation with the great Louis Agassiz of Harvard, nearly all McKay's bees are dead, and Lawrence, Kansas, has been sacked in a border-ruffian raid.
We now recogize these years as a watershed in our history the
slavery-abolitionist fury would soon split the country in two; westward expansion was underway, industrialism was on the rise, and Darwin's Origin was thundering offstage. But, to the people in these pages, all this is peripheral. They live their lives and pursue their goals inconvenienced but hardly deflected by the cataclysmic events around them the way most of us live now. And their story, filled with love and humor and folly and steadfastness, and with vibrantly realized men and woman, is a joy and a wonder. It confirms a major talent.
"An impressively original novel....McKay's Bees is comic in its vision, at the same time serious, constantly surprising in its twists of plot and its reflections upon life, by a writer with a voice uniquely his own." Edmund Fuller, Wall Street Journal
"Exhilarating...warmed by a tender sensuality." The New York Times Book Review
"A marvel of brains, brevity and sharp description." Time (Editor's Choice)
"A complete surprise, with a lilt and a bite of its own." San Francisco Chronicle
"That wit, irony, gentleness, passion and knowledge conspire so successfully is a wonder of craft." John Leonard, The New York Times
"Don't miss it...funny, vibrant, and human...a gem." Los Angeles Herald Examiner
Moving from Massachusetts to Kansas in 1855 with his new wife and a group of German carpenters, Gordon McKay is dead set on making his fortune raising bees—undaunted by Missouri border ruffians, newly-minted Darwinism, or the unsettled politics of a country on the brink of civil war.
About the Author
Thomas McMahon (1943 1999) was the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Mechanics and professor of biology at Harvard University. He is the author of Loving Little Egypt and Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry, both published by the University of Chicago Press, as well as the posthumous novel, Ira Foxglove..