Melissa Scholes Young’s second novel, The Hive, is a book with a heart that grows bigger than its central metaphor. The “hive” is the home of the Fehler family in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and their fourth-generation pest control business. The hive buzzes, vibrant with the lives of the mother and queen bee, Grace, and her four daughters—Maggie, Jules, Tammy, and Kate. When the family’s patriarch, Robbie, dies unexpectedly, these five women struggle not just to keep the family business above water, but to keep the hive alive—and to find the ways his absence allows them to thrive.
Grace, a survivalist, prepares for the worst, determined to protect her family, and navigates what’s left of an affair with a man she chose for his skills in prepping. Maggie wonders if her good business sense can save the family business from drowning in debt. Jules, a first-generation college student at the University of Missouri, longs to return to her budding life outside her hometown, and the man she met there, without abandoning the hive, however at odds she is with the politics of her family. Tammy, sixteen and pregnant, is faced with the decision of what’s best for her and her body, shedding the expectations of both sides of the reproductive rights debate. And Kate, the youngest, who is the family’s deepest observer, senses the smallest shifts in her sisters and mother, and for the first time must figure out her own growing feelings for her best friend, Lila.
“One can no more approach people without love than one can approach bees without care. Such is the quality of bees,” wrote Leo Tolstoy, a beekeeper who found much meaning and metaphor in bees. It’s the love that Scholes Young instills in The Hive that makes this book such a memorable, complex, and layered study of a family whose hearts have grown beyond the various institutions that underpin their values.
Melissa Scholes Young was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, the home of Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. For her first novel, Flood, a retelling of Tom and Huck’s famous friendship as female, she was awarded a Quarry Farm Fellowship at the Center for Mark Twain Studies and a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellowship.
We met for coffee on Zoom on a sunny Saturday morning and talked about grief, bees, prepper camp, and women who change lives.
The Rumpus: I love that Grace, the family matriarch, embraces the metaphor of “the hive” for her family and home while also resenting that the Fehler business infiltrates their home life. There’s a lot of complexity to her relationship with Robbie and with the business. Can you talk a little bit about Grace’s character?
Melissa Scholes Young: Grace was my favorite character to write, and probably the most challenging character. She’s ambivalent about motherhood. Sure, she loves her daughters. She loves her life. But there is a way that motherhood, especially young motherhood, marks her whole existence. There hasn’t been a lot of space for Grace to spend time with her identity or herself. She has become this queen bee. And she struggles, similarly, with the family business. She didn’t know this was something she was marrying into, and it’s complicated. A family business gives and it takes. The work is never done. It’s another sibling at the table and there is nothing you can do to compete with it. In Grace’s case, it’s also a third wheel in her marriage. I very much wanted the arguments around the family business to intentionally complicate and mirror the debates that I think we’re also having as a country about healthcare and human rights.
And for her family’s survival, the business must succeed so it can fund her efforts to prepare for the end of the world. Grace’s love is fierce and combative. She’ll fight to save her family, but she fears that softening her resolve could weaken the hive and lead to their demise. Without giving too much away, there were aspects of what happened to Grace in the book that were a surprise for me. The characters showed me what needed to happen. Those surprises are so glorious for a writer.
Writing Grace, I considered middle-aged female desire, and how it’s written, authentically, without all of these other labels and burdens we put on it. I wanted it to be not that complicated, only complicated in her own justification of it. I’m fascinated by how we justify not living our values and the fine line between productive guilt and shame. I find that hypocrisy so ripe for stories.
Rumpus: Did you ever think about giving a chapter to Robbie? Or was this always the story for the women to tell?
Scholes Young: Robbie is the only point of view I didn’t write. It’s not his story to tell. He’s never seen a reason to consider other people’s experiences because the world has mostly served him, and he’s received and thoroughly digested the message that he’s at the top of the hierarchy for a reason. Robbie absolutely loves his women, but it’s complicated because he’s also complicit in a system that represses their voices. There is plenty of literature from perspectives like his, and The Hive is not that. In many ways, he represents the structures that are in the way of each of the women’s stories, and the growth they could experience as individuals and as a community.
Rumpus: Each of the characters in this book subverts the reader’s expectations in some way, which is particularly evident in Tammy, who gets pregnant at sixteen. The standard sort of well-trodden plot trajectory for her would have been to either get an abortion or have the baby and embark on unhappy young motherhood and marriage. Were you thinking about subverting expectations as you wrote Tammy’s story?
Scholes Young: We have these frameworks where you’re supposed to do this if you have this set of values, or this is the choice you must make about an unintended pregnancy if you have these values. It’s always more complicated. The women in the book have these shared values of grit, hard work, faith, and community, but they disagree about which political institutions will preserve those values. I think that’s clear when it comes to an issue like abortion. There is this real contradiction in self-sufficiency and autonomy and how that’s applied to our own bodies, and I wanted to write characters that have autonomy in a consistent way over their own bodies, even if they are just waking up to that power.
Tammy’s character is a disrupter. Many of the choices that she makes would be called feminist by people in my community, but that is a label that is incredibly problematic in rural culture. But the ideas behind it, equality and independence, are celebrated. It’s just the label we put on them [that becomes problematic]. I want to see characters like Tammy, in all of their contradictions. She and her family support each other, even when they disagree. I try to see my characters clearly in all their struggles and gift them the love and support we all need. As writers, we create these worlds that we want to be true.
Rumpus: I was really interested in Grace’s prepping, and how it shifts as the book goes on. Could talk about that thin line between survival and fear in relationship to Grace and her prepping?
Scholes Young: Grace’s survivalism was a part of my research. Empathy is a writer’s superpower. We have to write characters compassionately. If you can’t create characters who are authentic in all their glorious flaws on the page, you shouldn’t be writing them. I think stories make us better and writing certainly makes my own humanity expand.
I went to Prepper Camp, a three-day wilderness skill building workshop in rural North Carolina and asked that very question: What is the line between preparedness and paranoia? How can we protect our own people without threatening others? Part of what I wanted to explore with Grace is the intention and the awareness of living well and aligning your values with your lived experience. Grace values local community yet she spends her money at Walmart. She grows her own food and harvests honey. What’s the quality versus quantity of survivalism?
This is actually something that Survivor Jane, one of the founders of Prepper Camp, taught me. She would talk about your bunker, and how well stocked it is, and then she’d say, “So you’ve got it all stocked and now what you need to do is go down for a weekend. Turn all your electricity off and just spend forty-eight hours there, and you’ll know pretty quickly if that’s food you want to eat for years.” That intention and the awareness is part of Grace; she’s learning to live well and taking some personal responsibility, and she does this when she goes to Prep U and realizes she’s not available to be a part of a movement that divides people. She’s a Christian and that is supposed to mean caring for and serving others. Grace wakes up to the dark side of individualism.
Rumpus: I had no frame of reference for prepping before reading your book, and Grace’s character was eye-opening.
Scholes Young: I went to Prepper Camp thinking it was going to be a gun show, and it turned out to be a hippie camp. In one workshop, we walked the forest, and they taught us what we could eat. I learned about beekeeping, composting, and solar energy. That’s not what you think of when you think of a show like Doomsday Preppers. One of the most profound moments was when they put up this picture of a guy that looks like Rambo. He’s got the ammo and the guns, and the first thing they said was, “This is the first guy who dies.” It was a good lesson to learn. It’s the difference between a hobbyist who wants to boast about consumerism versus a survivalist who wants to live in conjunction with the land.
Rumpus: This makes me think of living in harmony with the natural world, and the character of Val, a medium and dog-whisperer with whom Kate begins to work to train dogs to find bed bugs. Val adds something completely unexpected to the story because she uses her clairvoyant skills really practically. What are the intangible, more spiritual aspects of pest control?
Scholes Young: Val is such a ringer in the book to unlock all these other things. She’s the outsider. She’s a useful character to see if the family will reject an outsider or embrace an outsider. She’s a great tool in the plot, but also, she’s a character who works with animals to serve our desire to get rid of pests. It turns out if we just spray chemicals all over it, we actually do more harm than good. She understands there’s that delicate balance between how we use the earth to sustain us and how we destroy it. When it comes to pests, we’re uncomfortable with how much we need them. Our food wouldn’t exist without the work of pollinators, so it makes sense to support them. Spirituality, to Val, is considering her place in the world and living an examined life with purpose. Also, dogs are wise and her training methods reflect her belief in working with the animal world rather than trying to dominate it.
Rumpus: Nico, Jules’s boyfriend, is another outsider in the book. He’s half Black and half Asian American in a town of mostly white people. The scene where he arrives at Robbie’s funeral is so fabulously written in the nuanced ways you capture the reactions of the community, showing their implicit bias at the same time as they say they “don’t see color.”
Scholes Young: The funeral chapter was the hardest to write. I actually wrote it from every character’s point of view and figured out that Tammy was the one who could give us the most authentic access to that implicit bias. It needed to be a young character who could trip and be forgiven because she’s still learning, versus a character who we hope would know better. Exposure is a powerful tool in understanding an experience outside your own. In many ways, the Fehlers are isolated from difference so they’re learning the tools of adaptation, but this isn’t a rural/urban divide. Geography doesn’t determine insular thinking and it doesn’t limit the capacity to accept and to celebrate how our differences create a rich, diverse community where all members have value and safety.
Rumpus: Bryan, the cousin whom Robbie leaves a share of the business to, is a wonderful, subtle shadow in the story. When we first hear Robbie left him a share of the business, we bristle, but he turns out to be a kind person looking for a reason to go home, and this is a chance. I’d love to hear you say more about him.
Scholes Young: Bryan, like Robbie, is also a first-generation college student, and he’s always had this really complicated love for Robbie. When Robbie dies in the first part of the story, it creates space for the family to reorganize their structure. Bryan impacts that reorganization. In patriarchal families, a son is usually essential to carry on the family line, but since the Fehlers have four daughters, Bryan is forced in by Robbie’s will to fill that role. But Bryan doesn’t. Bryan, to me, wants a place in the hive, but he doesn’t try to dominate it. That, I think, opens up the family system to allow him to contribute to it, and to be accepted for who he is.
Rumpus: Bryan’s focus of study is on Jane Clemens, Samuel Clemens’s mother. I wanted to hear more about that.
Scholes Young: Jane Clemens was a storyteller; that is clear from her letters to her son. She had this very sardonic wit and huge compassion for people and animals. I was interested in making Bryan a scholar of the women in Mark Twain’s life. It’s women who changed Mark Twain; he called himself a reformed Southerner and evolved from deep roots in slavery to marrying into an abolitionist family.
Rumpus: The book is set in 2008, and we can sense the weight of the years that have passed since, but the story isn’t overwhelmed by that prescience. Why did you set it in 2008?
Scholes Young: I always knew the story had to be set in 2008 because I wanted to talk about the recession in middle America. Growing fear, resentment, and blaming of Obama laid a foundation for the election eight years later and the radicalism we see today.
Rumpus: The book ends in a way that left me hopeful. When I think about what’s happened in the eight-to-ten years since the ending of the book, I wonder how the Fehler women have weathered. Do you ever imagine where they are now?
Scholes Young: The Fehlers provide a working-class lens on a messy family facing a recession, but there’s also space for hope. There is a responsibility to indict institutions rather than people, and I hope that in this family, ten years later, there is recovery, respect, and more compassion for themselves and others.
I suspect the hive is stronger than ever and has more space and capacity. Novelists often begin with stories of family because how we’re raised shapes our world view. Peace and conflict within our own walls is just as fascinating and epic as the world outside.
Photograph of Melissa Scholes Young by Colleen Dolak.