Note: Readers hoping to avoid spoilers may wish to skip this review.
Julie Carrick Dalton’s novel The Last Beekeeper, set in a world that has “come undone,” is the story of a young woman trying to understand her puzzling past as she navigates an uncertain future.
Four years after aging out of the state care facility where she was raised after her father went to prison, Sasha Butler returns to her childhood home to find it’s been taken over by squatters. Sasha’s mother had died when she was seven, and her father, Lawrence, an entomologist, had given up the “pretense of parenting” by the time she was ten. When she was eleven, he was arrested, leaving Sasha parentless; the details of Lawrence’s arrest and subsequent trial is only hinted at until about halfway through the book.
But Sasha, who had “spent her first eleven years helping her father tend bees, and every year since trying to forget the hypnotic sound of being around them,” is determined to find her father’s hidden research, which she thinks will provide answers to “why her father chose prison over her.”
Yet when she shows up at the farm, the squatters accuse her of being a “pilgrim,” one of the many who show up at the home of the last beekeeper. Because Sasha had changed her name, no one knows who she really is, but as she comes to an agreement with the squatters to buy her enough time to find her father’s documents, she lives uneasily with her own hidden truth.
She soon realizes that the squatters—Ian, Gino, Halle, and Millie—offer her something she hasn’t had for more than a decade, a family, and she is determined to stay with them, despite the guilt she feels over hiding her identity. She must try to hide the fact that she knows the house better than any of them; she can’t react when she sees Halle wearing a skirt made of the curtains from her childhood bedroom.
The book goes back in forth in time, from Sasha’s early childhood to her current life among her newfound family at the farm. Twelve years earlier, Sasha had helped her father move her bees to the woods—with the wild bees dying, the government was taking over all remaining colonies, and it became a federal crime to keep bees outside an “authorized facility.” Lawrence’s bees were the last ones in North America; he knew they would be coming for them—and he wanted to protect hers.
Before his arrest, Sasha knew Lawrence was dealing with “something vast, formidable” that involved long days at work, late-night calls, and “clandestine visits to the bunker.” She did as she was told, asking questions that went unanswered until she stopped asking. She knew that beehives could not be moved more than three feet or less than three miles without becoming lost—and her bees had been relocated to a “danger zone” where many of them “would not find the hive and would die, lost and alone.” She knew her father wouldn’t have put them at risk unnecessarily—and she has to wonder “what could be worse than jeopardizing some of the last surviving bees?”
One day, Sasha finally sneaks away from her housemates and risks a trip to her father’s hidden bunker, but in an unexpected twist, her father’s journals disappear before she can read them. Meanwhile, she and her housemates get jobs working for the government, hired to hand-pollinate fruits and vegetables at what they call the “glass farm,” one of the many greenhouses now necessary to feed the country.
Sasha’s job brings in much-needed income but also complicates things: Her uncle Chuck now works for the Department of Agriculture, and she remembers her father’s words clearly: “Don’t let him find you.”
The post-undone world is both bleak and hopeful; while there is much suffering—most workers “spent their days surrounded by rows of lush vegetables they couldn’t afford to eat”—there is real camaraderie in their hardscrabble life. Sasha’s housemate Ian, though not a doctor, treats illnesses and injuries as best he can at the Saturday market, for free or for trades. The new economy is mostly bartering: “Vegetables for a mattress. Haircuts for a bike chain.”
To Sasha’s astonishment, she sees something no one has seen in the wild for eleven years—a bee. And then she sees another. Yet she cannot say anything; people have been arrested—or they simply disappear—for such “false claims.” All bee sightings have to be false, the government contends, because bees no longer exist.
Sasha knows there’s much more to the story and decides to go in search of them, using her memory, a supply of also-extinct honey she’d found stored in the bunker, and information from recent her conversations with her father, now in a prison hospital and losing his memory.
With help from her found family and a few others—those who figure out who she is and those in whom she confides—she embarks on a mission that will uncover the past and, they hope, inform the future. While the characters embrace their endeavor with a heroic sort of glee (“It’s time to save the world,” Gino says to Sasha), The Last Beekeeper also acknowledges humans’ role in where they ended up: Years earlier, watching the faces of the jurors at her father’s trial, Sasha saw that they looked guilty. “They should be on trial—everyone should be on trial—for destroying the world.” In the end, her father’s commands and secrets begin to make sense as Sasha and her housemates uncover the mystery of what happened years earlier and take steps toward making a better future.