Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League by Jonathan Odell

Southerners are often portrayed in literature and the media as uneducated, bigoted racists. There are some Southern folks who fit into this easily pigeonholed categorization but the reality is often much more complex and nuanced than that, even in the pre-Civil Rights era. Jonathan Odell looks at these complicated racial relationships in small town, 1950s Mississippi in his newly reworked novel, Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League, a National Reading Group Month Great Group Read.

Hazel and Vida loathe and distrust each other. They share a terrible similarity, each having lost a son, but they are not friends. Forced together by circumstance, Hazel's husband has hired Vida as their maid after Hazel's drunken accident following the death of her boy, the two women, one white and one black, are wary and resentful of each other. Hazel is from poor white hill people but her husband is forward thinking and successful. No matter how many Lincolns he sells, he can't buy her way into the top echelon of society in Delphi though; she will always be an outcast.  Vida is the protected daughter of a black preacher who often acts as the good faith go-between between the black community and the whites with power. But even her daddy's status cannot save Vida from the dangerous and mean Billy Dean Brister, county bully and Sheriff. She is still a powerless black woman who must work for a white family to earn a living and must endure the terror and threats of the hateful and racist in the town. As these two women grudgingly spend time together, they come first to a truce and eventually to the complicated relationship that allows them to join together with the other disenfranchised, maids and prostitutes, to expose and resist the evil in town.

Odell is ever mindful of the clear, unwavering racial divide in small Southern towns and he shows the varying types of racism that abide therein: unconscious, entrenched and courtly, institutionalized, and rabid and volatile. He also touches on class and the ways that it can contribute to oppression, both as a unifying force and as a divisive one. The characters here are fascinating, even if certain of them are occasionally stereotypical. The events of the novel are firmly set in the historical context of major Civil Rights events, showing that there were movements, small than on a nationwide scale, occurring all over, mirroring and encouraging those well known actions. The pacing was fairly slow and the hard work of Hazel and Vida's changing relationship was mostly passed over but the ideas of segregation, the power of hatred, making a stand, loss, motherhood, and corruption shine throughout all the varied threads of the narrative. The challenge to the racist status quo is well done although it is somewhat troubling that it takes a white woman's involvement to rally the black women's community to action. Odell's novel builds on a wealth of well written Southern novels that go before him, broadening our view of the time without trivializing, sentimentalizing, or demonizing the people and the place as a whole. He shines another light on the bravery and power of the dismissed and repressed to change their (and our) world even in the face of hatred.  This is a story to pay attention to.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kristen,

    This book is so far out of my usual reading zone, but I didn't hesitate in adding it to my 'Want To Read' list.

    I only know about the American black civil rights movement, the little which has been aired publicly on television, here in the UK. Whilst there has always been interest and intrigue in the whole issue for me, I have to admit that I have never actively sourced any books on the subject.

    Your excellent feature post for the book and the fact that the story is recounted in fictional terms, has made this a 'must read' for me. It is only a pity that I didn't get to find out about it before NetGally archived their copies.

    Thanks for sharing :)



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