The Last Beekeeper
“The stakes get higher with the possibility of bringing back the pollinators and, literally, saving the world, and the story hurtles along in its final chapters.”
The best kind of dystopian novel has a certain addictive mix of hope and dread—the moments of beauty stand out all the more because of the darkness. In The Last Beekeeper, Julie Carrick Dalton’s second novel, you’ll find that tricky balance. It’s a three-dimensional world that Dalton has built, and while some details of the near-apocalypse may be what you expect, it’s the moments of beauty that will seep into your bloodstream.
It’s a mesmerizingly original book with such attention to detail that you’ll feel like you could tend a hive or make a stew from dandelion greens. We meet Sasha Severn’s bees at the same time we meet Sasha herself—she’s 11 on the first page, breathing in the comforting smoke of her father’s pipe and listening to the perfect G note of bees buzzing in a hive.
When we jump to the fictional present day, though, Sasha has grown up and the bees have disappeared. She’s 22, and having aged out of the foster care system, she’s returning to her childhood home, which has been abandoned for years. The reader starts to piece together that something terrible happened with the bees, and Sasha’s father, a scientist, went to prison rather than turn over his research. The disaster wasn’t confined their family—it was part of a mass extinction of pollinators across the globe, and the end result is a teetering world that’s barely managing to stave off mass starvation and civil unrest. Sasha’s bees were, apparently, the last of their kind.
Or were they?
Sasha meets the mixed bag of squatters who have taken over her home, and she begins to carve out a space for herself among them, even as she struggles to decide what to do about her father and his missing research. Like all the best books, a list of characters and plot points hardly touches on what the story is truly about. Yes, the novel is a mystery and a love story. It’s about bees and a world on the brink, but it is more about family, hope, the pull of memory, and the ways we reach for each other, even as strangers. It’s about how “as much as we try, we can’t stop time.”
Even with poisoned soil and falling-down houses and entire species wiped out of existence, Dalton’s world is stunning. You can hear the music of Sasha’s home: the churning water in the creek, and the pale purple echinacea blowing in the wind, and the phantom buzz of the bees. The air is thick with smells: violin rosin, beeswax, lavender, rosemary, body odor, canned meat. You can taste the honey.
Dalton’s sentences are stunning, too. Sasha repairs bikes in her mother’s old workshop, which was itself repurposed out of Sasha’s grandparents’ barn, and the space “smelled like generations’ worth of expectation.” On her father’s old desk, she sees the “slouching silhouette of the microscope.”
Sasha’s love for this place comes through in every detail, and the love comes across just as strongly when she—finally—sits face-to-face with her father. She “used to trace the sticky residue on his hands like continents on a map, his calluses and swollen knuckles rising like mountains, the cracked skin and deep lines forming rivers and land formations.”
Although plenty happens to these characters, this story isn’t about snaky, unpredictable twists. There are moments of frustration when Sasha repeatedly refuses to make a choice—or acknowledge a truth—when it’s obvious to the reader that she should. There’s a big reveal or two that you may see coming from a long way away.
But Sasha’s search for a new life for herself pulls you along—Will she be accepted? Will she forgive her father? Will she ever kiss the hot government guy? The stakes get higher with the possibility of bringing back the pollinators and, literally, saving the world, and the story hurtles along in its final chapters. It’s a tribute to Dalton that you care about Sasha and her makeshift family every bit as deeply as you care about the fate of the planet.