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.