This book has two main characters: one is nicknamed Little Bee, who is from Nigeria and has illegally immigrated over to Britain in fear for her life. The other main character is Sarah O'Rourke, the British woman who met Little Bee in Nigeria while she was on holiday and experienced a terrible interaction there that involved Little Bee.
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The story is told in alternating chapters in the voices of either Little Bee or Sarah. Sarah has come to Nigeria for a vacation with her husband, Andrew, leaving their son, Charlie, with his grandparents back in England. Sarah and Andrew are having marital troubles, mainly because Sarah is having an affair with Lawrence, a man she met while she was writing a story for the magazine she edits, "Nixie." Lawrence works for the government and he is easygoing and self-deprecating, while Andrew is a serious writer. Sarah chooses Nigeria because it is on a list of free vacations offered within her workplace by advertisers, though many other, more attractive locations were available to her. She wants to go somewhere unique and different.
The book begins by introducing Little Bee as she wishes she were a British Pound coin instead of an African girl of sixteen. She is in the refugee detention center in England, being held prisoner for the past two years until her case is resolved. She is also thinking a lot about her sister, Nkiruka. Three other inmates and Little Bee are told they will be released shortly. It turns out that one of the women, Yevette, a Jamaican refugee, has been giving a guard sexual favors and he is letting her go, but not without other inmates in order to not make it look suspicious. The problem that the girls discover upon being freed, is that they weren't given any papers to prove their freedom to the authorities.
It is the Spring of 2007 when Sarah begins her narration. Her son, Charlie, is four years old and he has been wearing his Batman costume 24 hours a day (Sarah has 2 of them so one can always be clean). Andrew has committed suicide and they are preparing to attend the funeral, when Little Bee knocks on her door after leaving the detention center, walking for hours to find their home. She has Andrew's license and business card with their address, which she had found on the beach in Nigeria after their shared experience. Sarah is shocked to open the door and discover that Little Bee is actually alive. She tells Sarah that she and her sister had changed their real names so that the "men" could not trace them back to their village in Nigeria. Her sister took the name "Kindness" and she has taken "Little Bee."
They discuss a little of what happened on the beach in Nigeria where they first met. Sarah and Andrew were staying at a large hotel compound that is protected by guards. But they decide to ignore the rules and go for a walk along the beach alone together. A guard from the hotel catches up with them and tells them they must return to the compound, it's not safe on the beach. Suddenly, Little Bee and Kindness are running towards them. They tell Sarah and Andrew that they're running away from the bad men who are trying to kill them; they've already killed their parents. The bad men reach the group and threaten to murder the girls. The guard intervenes and he is shot and killed on the spot. One of the group of men then tells Andrew that the British have always put up their middle finger to their people. He tells Andrew that if he lets him chop off his middle finger, he will not kill one of the girls. Andrew is given the knife to take this action, but he refuses to do it. Sarah then grabs the knife from him and she immediately cuts her own middle finger off to save one girl. The men are astounded but they say that Sarah has just saved Little Bee's life. However, they take both of the girls and disappear with them into the woods.
Little Bee, now in the present, moves in temporarily with Sarah and Charlie. When Lawrence discovers LIttle Bee, he wants to turn her in to the authorities and have her sent back home. But the girl threatens to expose his affair and to tell Sarah about his threat. He retreats. During their discussion the reader learns that LIttle Bee had arrived at Sarah's home just before Andrew killed himself. She found him with the cord around his neck, ready to jump off a chair. She tried to talk him out of it, but he tells her that he couldn't save her in Africa and he goes ahead with the suicide right in front of Little Bee. She tries to save him, but she can't. She tells Lawrence how guilty she feels over this and how serious her trouble can become if the authorities find out.
Sarah eventually asks Little Bee to tell her what happened to her and her sister once the bad men took them into the woods on the Nigerian beach. Little Bee tells her that the men placed her beneath an upside-down boat and took Kindness to a spot where Bee couldn't see what was happening, but could hear it all. They raped Kindness for hours on end and then murdered her.
Lawrence, Little Bee, Sarah and Charlie decide to go to London and enjoy a day out. They are by the river, when suddenly Charlie is missing. Sarah is screaming and very distraught. Lawrence tells Little Bee to go to a certain spot and keep a lookout while he looks elsewhere. Before he leaves to find Charlie, he gives Little Bee his cellular phone and tells her to phone the police so they can begin searching, too. She hesitates and both Sarah and Lawrence are upset that she is not immediately doing this. She eventually takes the phone and does call the police, because she has come to love Charlie and Sarah. Charlie is found before the police arrive, but Little Bee is caught and taken back to jail. She is eventually put on a plane to be deported to Nigeria, where she is sure she will be found and murdered.
On the plane before takeoff to Nigeria, where she is accompanied by an officer of the law, Sarah is suddenly walking up the aisle of the plane towards Little Bee. She has Charlie with her. She plans on going to Africa to help Little Bee fight this and to write a book about these refugees, a book that Andrew had started to do a lot of research on and left behind.
As Sarah, Charlie and LIttle Bee are walking on the beach and having a nice day, they realize the police are running towards them. Little Bee hides amongst some women and their children. The police approach Sarah and Charlie and question them loudly. Then Charlie is afraid and runs right towards Little Bee, who sees his distress. She runs towards him and gives him a big hug. She finally talks Charlie into removing his Batman costume if she makes the agreement to tell Charlie her real first name, which is Udo. This interaction with Charlie exposes her to the police. They take her into custody. We do not discover what happens to her, ultimately, but it is implied that she will be jailed or worse.
Best part of story, including ending:
I loved Little Bee's voice and inner thoughts throughout the book. She is a delightful, naive yet very aware young girl, with a lot of sensitivity and intelligence.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene is when Little Bee tells Sarah the entire story of what happened to her and her sister once they were taken into the woods. It is horrible, but the reader has wondered about it all along.
Opinion about the main character:
I like Little Bee's character because she is so brave, even as she worries all the time about how she would protect herself if the men were to find her. I liked Sarah's devotion to Little Bee in the end.