THE GERMAN SETTLERS takes with him to the Kansas Territory make music boxes that play Old Dog Tray. The young wife McKay takes with him suffers from underwork, a cold heart and a galloping case of pre-feminism. She also dislikes the residents of her husband's hives. Catherine "knew that the bees were women. They were dignified, dangerous, purposeful women . . . Their lives were all work, all women's work -- housekeeping and foraging. They spent their lives in domestic boredom."
McKay himself is a rich Bostonian of refined sensibility, great kindness and few brains. Because bees tend to start new swarms if the old queen is removed, and can do so up to four times a season, McKay figures he can parlay the ten hives he is taking to Kansas into 10,240 hives in five years. Each hive can "cheerfully" produce 80 to 100 lbs. of honey a year. This he will ship east in summer for sale. The music boxes will take up the trading slack in winter.
Mathematically, McKay's reckonings are right. But his plans to establish a thriving humstead naturally go wrong, and this is the matter of Thomas McMahon's fine, small, funny second novel. McMahon is a professor of applied mechanics and biology at Harvard. Nine years ago. he wrote Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry: A Novel. It told of a teen-age boy growing up among the scientists at Los Alamos. N. Mex., as they calculated their way toward the atomic bomb. Here the author sets his sights backward by 100 years to spoof the pre-Darwinian notion of nature as the beneficent servant of man.
The year is 1855. Border raids between Missouri and Kansas, and hatred of Eastern abolitionists, shake McKay's project to the ground. The bees get a disease; most of them die. McKay and Catherine retreat to Boston. In the process, real people as well as real historical events glance off the angles of McMahon's story. Among the people: Louis Agassiz, 19th century America's most celebrated naturalist, cold to Darwin's evolutionary theories because he regards each species of plant or animal as "in itself, a thought of God."
McMahon's book is a marvel of brains, brevity and sharp description. He flashes around like a lightning bug briefly casting a glow on some detail or other: what it's like to travel on the Erie Canal: how a character is inadvertently shot; the way in which daguerreotypes are made. He does a lot with bees too, but as the book implies, they have enough metaphorical possibilities for a series of novels. A hive is a feminist state, with an automatic system for keeping warm that is activated when the temperature in the hive drops to 57° F. Male bees are scarce, underfed and all but useless.
They have only one thing to do and they do it only once, mating in mid-air and then dying a horrible death. The female workers sometimes feed the young 1.300 times a day. When they dislike or distrust their leader, they cluster closely around her and crush or sting her to death. It is a process long known as "balling the queen."