Little Bee (The Other Hand)
by Chris Cleave
Sixteen-year-old Little Bee is a deeply ironic character. In her, the extremes of hope and horror live side-by-side. With every breath, she embraces life…while also waiting for death to find her, as it found her family and most of the people in her village. Most readers find her very sympathetic and loveable. Yet, except for kind folks like Sarah and Charlie, this great girl is unwanted in England just because she's an immigrant. Even worse, she's wanted dead in her own country, Nigeria, because she witnessed the atrocities committed by the oil companies who are turning her former village into an oil field.
At one point in the novel, Little Bee tries to help Charlie a.k.a. Batman (four-year-old son of Sarah) deal with his grief over his father Andrew's death. She tells him, "Little Bee is only my superhero name. I have a real name too, like you have, Charlie" (9.129). Maybe it's indeed helpful to think of Little Bee in superhero terms. She has a deep sense of justice – a justice that does include vengeance – and she survives on skill and daring. She excels at flight, at hiding, and at disguise – that sure sounds like a superhero to us.
But, as she is, we never lose sight of Little Bee's extreme vulnerability. Although she's strong, intelligent, and resourceful, she is also very young and she doesn't have any money or legal status in England. She's totally dependent on her own wits, and on the kindness of strangers. In Sarah she finds that kind stranger, and gives back at least as much kindness as she gets.
Little Bee, all things considered, is a kind, loving person whose personal tragedies have made her more acutely aware of the suffering of others – yes, even the suffering of someone like Lawrence, whose troubles seem downright banal next to Little Bee's. Her ability to help others when her own life is hanging in the balance is part of what makes her a truly extraordinary person. Little Bee's given name is Udo, which means "peace." We think it fits – what about you?
Little Bee, who narrates six of the novel's eleven chapters, specifically addresses the readers, whom she assumes to be English speakers living in "developed" nations. In the first chapter, she asks readers to agree to see things a little differently that we normally might. She lets us know from the get-go that she is scarred by the things she's seen, heard, and experienced. She says,
[…] I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. […] Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived. (1.39)
You might or might not agree with Little Bee. You probably have your own scars and your own perspective on them. Still, it's easy to see where Little Bee is coming from. She's finding a way to acknowledge the horror and injustice she's experienced, and to still find hope in the sheer act of living. We like that approach.
This gets pretty complicated, though, when we hear about Little Bee's suicidal thoughts. Here's an example:
In the immigration detention center, they told us we must be disciplined to overcome our fears. This is the discipline I learned: whenever I go into a new place, I work out how I would kill myself there. (3.8)
At first, we might think she's come to this grim way of living because of what happened to her in the detention center. Those experiences were far from pleasant (and we don't even get full details) but probably not what lead her to consider suicide. Later, when we find out that Little Bee was forced to listen to her sister being raped and tortured for hours on the beach, and then made to watch as the last pieces of her sister body were tossed into the ocean, we understand why Little Bee wants to be prepared to kill herself. She'd rather kill herself than be tortured and murdered by some demon like that.
Little Bee is one complicated character with one complicated outlook. She's meant to jump-start our own thinking and encourage us to examine life and death from all new perspectives.
Little Bee and Andrew
"I think I wanted to say thank you to Sarah for saving me, but also I wanted to punish Andrew for letting my sister be killed." (7.161)
Little Bee's confession to Lawrence (Sarah's lover) is one of the novel's biggest surprise twists. Indeed, Little Bee did visit Andrew with some kind of vengeance in mind. But when she saw how tormented the guy was, obviously because of his refusal to cut off his finger to save Little Bee's sister's life, she actually felt sorry for him.
The big question Little Bee's interaction with Andrew poses is this: Did she drive him, albeit unwittingly, to his death? The fact that Andrew was convinced that Little Bee was a hallucination or a ghost speaks a lot to his mental state at that point. Although Little Bee might have sped things up, there's every indication that Andrew was on a path toward suicide before she called him from the detention center.
Lawrence believes (or so he claims) that Little Bee is practically guilty of killing Andrew herself. Sarah, however, thinks that Andrew's decision to take his own life was his own, not something Little Bee is responsible for, even though the girl was on the scene at the time. If the authorities heard the story, what might they think of Little Bee's actions? And, most importantly, what do you think?