Friday, March 3, 2023

Book Review: The Last Beekeeper

By Jami Denison

Flooding. Blizzards. Late-season hurricanes. These are all signs of the coming climate crisis, but the more ominous signs are easier to miss. When was the last time you saw a swarm of bees hovering around a public garbage can? I used to see them all the time at my son’s summer baseball games in the 2000s. In the past several years, though, baseball has been a bee-free event. What will happen if the last of the bees disappear?

In her second novel, The Last Beekeeper, author and journalist Julie Carrick Dalton has given us a glimpse of that world through the eyes of a woman whose father was blamed for killing off the last beehive. Part conspiracy thriller, part literary fiction, part dystopian, Dalton creates the most realistic post-apocalyptic fictional world I’ve ever read. And while her protagonist remains hopeful, sometimes works like this make it hard for readers to be.

Ten years ago, the end of the bees created a domino effect that destroyed agriculture and the economy. The U.S. seems to have returned to the years of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Sasha Severn, daughter of the infamous “last beekeeper,” has spent many of those years in foster care since her testimony helped send her father to jail. Blamed for the death of the last beehive, Lawrence Severn swore he wasn’t hiding any research from the government, and 11-year-old Sasha backed him up, hiding her own shameful secret. Now she’s returned to the family farm, her father still in jail, determined to find his missing research once and for all. But when she gets there, she’s greeted by a rifle and a group of squatters. They’ve claimed the land as theirs, and Sasha needs to go. Now what?

The Last Beekeeper moves between several plots and subplots, and Dalton weaves them together admirably. As Sasha becomes close to the people who’ve moved into her family home, she faces a choice: Confess that she’s the infamous last beekeeper’s daughter, and risk losing her new friends? Or keep quiet and risk them finding out? The drama grows as Sasha spies a honeybee, putting the entire group in jeopardy. Other people have disappeared after reporting sightings, and there’s even a new mental illness specifically about hallucinating bees. If Sasha chases her bees, she could lose everything. But if she doesn’t, the planet could be lost.

Talk about high stakes!

Even with the world at stake, character and relationships are the backbone of fiction, and my favorite sections of the novel were the pages about the other characters in the house and how they came together to support each other. One character had epilepsy and needed expensive medication, another was trying to get legal custody of a younger sister. The group took on these problems as their own and pooled their money and their resources to help. Living without electricity, trying to farm toxic lands, hand-pollinating plants and looking for water, the group came together to accomplish all these chores. It felt real and timeless. 

I was less enthralled with Sasha’s musical background (she didn’t have rhythm!), the conspiracy-like details about the bees, and the coincidence of Sasha’s uncle being a bigwig in the Department of Agriculture and a nemesis of her father’s. Dalton puts all these elements together in the book’s climax, leading to sometimes breathless and sometimes unintentionally funny drama. 

Sasha is a unique character in a unique world, but in Dalton’s hands, she feels universal. Torn between wanting to do the right thing versus wanting to be happy and loved, trying to slow down and appreciate the beauty in the world versus doing what it takes to succeed … these dilemmas hit every young adult no matter what their circumstances, giving a strong spine to Dalton’s story. 

While recent news about a vaccine for honeybees may make this doomsday scenario less likely, The Last Beekeeper reminds us that climate change is coming, and it’s more than hurricanes and blizzards. The preppers who stocked their basements with tons of canned food may end up having the last laugh after all. 

Thanks to Booksparks for the book in exchange for an honest review.

Also by Julie Carrick Dalton:

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