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Little Bee is narrated by Little Bee (not her real name) and Sarah (an English woman who you will meet in a minute) in alternating chapters.
Little Bee, who kicks off the story, wishes she was a British pound coin, instead of a Nigerian girl. Unlike her, coins travel freely and safely. Little Bee learns the Queen's English in order to survive in England. English is the official language of her home country, Nigeria, but that version has other African languages blended in too. Little Bee learns the Queen's English in an immigration detention center in Essex, England, where she has been held since 2005. She is released from the adult detention center on a Friday morning in May 2007 with three other girls. She is sixteen years old.
Little Bee has a driver's license and business card belonging to Andrew O'Rourke, a white man she met on the beach two years ago in Nigeria. She calls him from the detention center phone. He seems to think she's an imposter. He's angry, and tells her not to come to his house. She says she is going to come anyway. The four girls – Little Bee, a Jamaican girl named Yevette, a girl they call Sari Girl, and a girl they call the "girl with no name" – go outside to wait for the taxi that Little Bee called to take them to Andrew O'Rourke's.
Now meet our other narrator Sarah O'Rourke, and her four-year-old son Charlie. Charlie wears his Batman costume all the time and only answers to "Batman." We learn that five days after Little Bee calls him from the detention center, Sarah's husband Andrew, a columnist for The Times, hangs himself. Five days after that, the day of Andrew's funeral, Little Bee arrives at Sarah's house in an English suburb.
Little Bee attends the funeral with Sarah and Charlie. There, Sarah thinks back to the day she and Andrew met Little Bee and her sister two years ago. Sarah tells us, "The only souvenir I have of that first meeting is an absence where the middle finger of my left hand used to be" (2.15).
The story moves back to Little Bee's point of view. We learn that she fled Nigeria two years prior by stowing away on a British cargo ship. She's put in the immigrant detention center as soon as she arrives in England. For six months, she screams every night. During the days thinks of ways to kill herself. After six months, she feels some hope mixed with her horror and starts learning the Queen's English and learning about British history and culture.
Now Little Bee picks up the story on the day of her release from the detention center. When the taxi comes for her and the other three girls, Little Bee accidentally offends the taxi driver and he leaves without them. The four girls walk out of the detention center gates and down the hill. A man on a tractor approaches them, and they all get really scared. The man, named Mr. Ayers, owns the land they wandered onto. Apparently he makes a habit of giving shelter to people like them, who are released from the detention center with nowhere to go. He gives the four of them shelter in a clean, hidden building.
In their temporary shelter, Yevette tells Little Bee she had sex with one of the immigration men and he checked a box next to her name in the computer, which is why she was released. He put check marks next to the names of the other three women at random, so Yevette's release wouldn't look suspicious. But checking a box is one thing – legal immigration papers are another. All four women were released without papers, meaning they are now in England illegally.
The girl with no name isn't doing well. She starts screaming, reliving the horrors she's fled from. Little Bee and Yevette try to comfort her. She hallucinates that her daughter is here with her. Little Bee and Yevette pretend they see the child too. That night, Little Bee dreams of her village back in Nigeria. When she wakes up, she sees that the girl with no name has hanged herself from the skylight chain. Little Bee leaves without saying good-bye, and makes her way on foot to Sarah and Andrew's house.
The novel shifts back to Sarah's point of view. She picks up her description of the day of Andrew's funeral. After Sarah, Charlie, and Little Bee walk home from the funeral, Sarah learns some of Little Bee's story. This section blends together (somewhat confusingly) what Little Bee tells Sarah plus Sarah's own memories: after Little Bee's village and most of the people in it are destroyed, Little Bee flees. She hides in the jungle by the beach with her sister. The sisters watch Sarah and Andrew (vacationing in Nigeria) together on the beach.
Soon, the sisters hear people yelling and dogs barking. They know the men chasing them are near. A hotel guard comes and tells Sarah and Andrew that the beach isn't safe. When the sisters hear the men and dogs coming closer through the jungle, they come out of their hiding places and ask Sarah, Andrew, and the guard to help them. Little Bee says that the men are chasing them because they saw the men kill the people in her village, which is wanted by oil companies for an oil field. Andrew doesn't believe them. He thinks they are trying to scam him and Sarah.
Soon, the hunters and dogs arrive. They try to take the girls, but Sarah won't let them. The leader kills the hotel guard. Andrew offers the leader money to let the girls go. The leader says that if Andrew will cut off his middle finger, he will let the girls live. Andrew can't do it, so Sarah puts her hand on the sand, picks up the machete, and chops off her middle finger. The hunter says that in exchange for Sarah's act, Little Bee will live. But her sister will die.
After telling Sarah the story, Little Bee falls asleep. Sarah calls Lawrence, her lover. When she tells him that Little Bee is at her house, he freaks out. He wants Sarah to call the police. He's afraid Little Bee is dangerous. When Little Bee wakes up the next morning, Sarah asks her to tell her what happened after Andrew and Sarah left the beach that day.
Here you go, then: After Andrew and Sarah leave the beach, the hunters take Little Bee and her sister down the beach to an abandoned boat that's turned upside down. They force Little Bee under the boat, while they rape, torture, and murder her sister nearby. When Little Bee feels like the men aren't watching her anymore, she comes out from under the boat and goes back to the beach where she met Sarah and Andrew. She finds Andrew's wallet and takes his driver's license and business card. She flees by night and hides by day, eventually coming to a port, where she stows away on a British cargo ship.
After hearing Little Bee's horrendous story, Sarah starts thinking about why she and Andrew were in Nigeria in the first place. We dive back into Sarah's past. It's 2005 and she and Andrew are going through a rough spot in their marriage. Sarah starts having affair with Lawrence Osborne, who works for the Home Office (Britain's "lead government department for immigration and passports, drugs policy, crime, counter-terrorism and police"). Lawrence is married with children. Their affair remains a secret for about six months. When Andrew discovers the affair, Sarah convinces Andrew to go to Nigeria with her on vacation to try to patch things up.
Back in the present, on the day after Andrew's funeral, Lawrence shows up at Sarah's house. Sarah isn't pleased that he's here, but lets him in. That night, Lawrence tries to pressure Sarah into abandoning Little Bee, something Sarah has no intention of doing. They argue and Lawrence is about to leave. But Sarah asks him to stay and they make up. He sleeps over.
The next morning, Little Bee and Lawrence talk while Sarah naps. That conversation goes downhill quickly when he threatens to call the police on Little Bee. But Little Bee puts up a fight, saying that if he reports her, she'll tell his family about his affair, and make sure Sarah hates him. Dilemma!
Little Bee confesses to Lawrence that she was here at the house in the days before Andrew's death. After she ran away from Mr. Ayers's shelter, Little Bee hid in the bushes outside Andrew and Sarah's house. She tried to talk to Andrew, but he thought she was a hallucination or a ghost or something. He hanged himself in Little Bee's presence, and Little Bee thinks she could have saved him if she wasn't afraid that she'd be arrested when the police came. Lawrence and Little Bee agree not to tell each other's secrets. Hardly sounds like a friendly truce to us.
Lawrence spends the night again. The next morning , Sarah convinces everybody to go with her to South Bank in London. In London, Little Bee decides it might be better for Sarah and Charlie if she left them. She walks off, but then decides she doesn't trust Lawrence with Charlie, and goes back. Little Bee plays with Charlie on some steps near the water, and she learns that Charlie wears his Batman costume all the time because he thinks he must do so to protect his father from death. Little Bee explains that Andrew's death totally isn't his fault. She offers to tell Charlie her real name if he takes off his costume, but he won't, so she doesn't reveal her name.
Lawrence comes and plays with Charlie, while Little Bee goes to talk to Sarah. Sarah tells Little Bee that last night when she was in Andrew's study, she found a book's worth of research and writing about refugees and immigration detention centers. Sarah wants to continue Andrew's work, possibly write a book. Sarah tells Little Bee she needs to make a phone call, and Little Bee goes down to Lawrence and Charlie. Lawrence and Little Bee argue – again. Sarah calls her publisher and quits her job at the fashion magazine she started, Nixie. When Sarah comes back, Charlie is nowhere to be seen.
Lawrence gives Little Bee his phone and tells her to call the police and wait for them to come. Meanwhile, he finds Charlie, hiding in a drainage pipe. Little Bee doesn't realize Charlie's been found until after the police arrive. When she gives her name as Little Bee, the police become suspicious and she's arrested and taken to a holding cell. Sarah visits her that night in jail and Little Bee confesses to Sarah that she was with Andrew on the day of his death. Sarah doesn't seem mad at her.
Three days later, Little Bee is driven to the airport and put on a plane back to Nigeria, accompanied by a guard. While waiting for the plane to take off, Little Bee hears someone say her name. It's Sarah. She and Charlie are going with Little Bee to Nigeria. Sarah believes that if she stays with Little Bee, she can protect her. In Nigeria, the police decide not to arrest Little Bee, Sarah, or Charlie, but guards are posted up outside their hotel room at all times. Sarah wants Little Bee to help her collects stories from other survivors like her, to help bring the story to the public, and perhaps save Little Bee's life. Little Bee agrees. Sarah gives the guards money every day and the guards let them walk around while it's light out.
One morning, Little Bee asks Sarah to take her to the ocean, so she can say good-bye to the memory of her sister. At the beach, Charlie is having lots of fun playing with the other kids, wearing, of course, his Batman costume. While Little Bee is relaxing in the sun, Sarah alerts her – three soldiers have arrived. She tells Little Bee to run along, so she can blend in with the other black women on the beach. Little Bee goes down the beach to a rocky point and watches from a distance as a soldier pulls his gun on Sarah. Suddenly, Charlie starts running, and the soldier points the gun at him instead. Little Bee sprints toward Charlie. When they meet, Charlie runs into her arms. There on the beach, Little Bee reveals her real name to Charlie. It's Udo, which means "peace."
The soldiers are walking toward them. Charlie takes off his Batman costume and runs off, playing with the other children. Little Bee feels a soldier's hand on her shoulder, but all she can do is laugh.
And that's how Little Bee ends. For all the dirty details, check out the Chapter Summaries, or skip to "What's Up With the Ending?"