First of all, happy birthday to Miss Rosa Parks and thank you for taking a stand or, rather, keeping your seat. If you ever doubted the power of one person to make a difference then all you have to do is look at Rosa Parks and the courage it took for her to stay in her seat when asked to move. That bus driver should have known better than to test a woman’s last nerve like that.
Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League is actually Jonathan Odell’s first novel; however, it was released as The View From Delphi by a very small publisher and, as so often happens, didn’t get much recognition. Following his success with The Healing (review link below this review), it has been re-imagined and is being republished. I don’t normally read or review republished novels but I was so awestruck by The Healing that I made an exception and I’m really glad I did.
Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League is the perfect novel to pay tribute to all women like Rosa Parks who have said that’s enough; I’ve had it. It’s also an excellent portrayal of the entangled, tightly interwoven inter-racial relationships in the South when the Civil Rights movement began. If you liked The Help, you’ll want to know more about this novel. And the publisher has provided us with a copy that one of you will win in our giveaway!
Hazel never fit in at home and was determined to make something better of herself than her white trash mother had. She dreamed of being somebody and knew the minute Floyd walked into the Tupelo, Mississippi drugstore where she worked that he was the one for her. He had a positive attitude she’d never seen before. She could tell he was going places, and she wanted to go there with him. If she could just get some of that amazing positivity and charm to rub off on her, she could do anything just like Floyd.
When he asked her to marry him and go live with him in the Delta where he had gotten a job selling farm machinery, she didn’t hesitate. He promised their lives would be different and she believed him, and he meant every word of it. Although their first house was a converted slave cabin, it wasn’t long before Floyd moved them up in the world of Delphi. He opened a Ford/Lincoln/Mercury dealership and bought Hazel a big house on the hill among Delphi’s elite society.
Hazel, unfortunately, had no idea how to be a lady of substance in Delphi and did everything wrong. She had two small sons, and Floyd instructed her to drive them around dressed to the nines in a new Lincoln to show off what the dealership had to offer. In her confusion and growing depression over not fitting in, she began to quietly drink more and more. When she saw a “colored” child’s body pulled from the river and one of her sons later died in a freak accident, it was so traumatic that it tipped her over the edge into a deep alcohol-fueled depression that landed her in a mental institution.
Vida was the pampered daughter of a local “colored” preacher, who called her Snowflake and dressed her in beautiful white dresses. She even had a white parasol to keep the sun off of her skin. Although Vida knew the circumstances of those who came to her father’s church, her family seemed largely untouched by those circumstances since they were protected by their relationship with the Senator. The Senator owned the largest cotton plantation/farm in the Delta and he wielded power throughout the county, if not the whole state. He and her father had grown up together, as close as brothers in many ways, and the Senator always looked out for her father and by extension for her.
Given her status in the community, Vida especially chaffed over having to call white ladies “Miss” and resented their automatic elevated position in the community, one she could never have under any circumstances. She took an instant dislike to the increasingly tipsy Miss Hazel, driving around in her fancy car at high speeds with her little boys hanging out the window. To her, Miss Hazel represented everything that was wrong with Mississippi and the world in general.
And then there was this new sheriff the Senator had bought and paid for. He was a redneck who took whatever he wanted. When he decided he wanted Vida and raped her, her whole world fell apart. She suddenly and irreversibly learned she wasn’t safe from anything or anyone – that it was all an illusion, a false story she had bought that her father still believed in. When she discovered she was pregnant, it not only horrified her but it almost killed her father.
Still, when Vida’s son was born, she loved him with all of her heart. How he got there wasn’t the point – the point was that he was a life to be cherished. Her father wanted to tell the Senator what his new sheriff had done but Vida lived in dread the sheriff would harm her son; a very real fear as it turned out. After her father took her to the Senator’s house to disclose what the sheriff had done, the sheriff came after her and her son one night in a drunken rage. He believed he had murdered the child and covered his tracks that night, but had he? He also burned down her father’s church and brought insurrection charges against him, claiming he was in league with the NAACP to try to get voting rights. Their lives were destroyed in that one hellish night.
Vida’s Snowflake days were long gone. Without her father’s church, he was completely lost. That left Vida to support them, so she worked as a field hand until one day a neighbor, Sweet Pea, told her about a maid’s job that was open. Now Vida would almost rather die than become some uppity white woman’s maid but she knew she needed something that paid better than picking cotton. So she swallowed what little pride she had left and went up to Delphi to work for, of all people, Miss Hazel, newly returned from the loony bin.
At first it was fairly easy since Miss Hazel was zonked out on the pills she had to take to keep her from drinking and from going crazy. Miss Hazel’s son, Johnny, made Vida’s life miserable because he thought she was invading his momma’s house and he didn’t want her there, but Vida was onto his ornery self so she had that under control. Even as Miss Hazel began to fight taking those pills, it was still manageable because the main thing to Vida was that Miss Hazel lived next door to the sheriff, and Vida wanted revenge against him more than anything.
Things in the Delta were the way they’d always been and seemed like they would always be, and there was nothing Vida or her fellow maids could do about it. And then something happened – a seamstress named Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama refused to give up her place in the middle of the bus just because the bus driver told her to. And like a small snowball rolling slowly downhill, Vida and the women around her, maybe even Miss Hazel, began to get ideas…
“’…But it wasn’t no man who got it started. It was a colored woman who done it.’
‘Goodness gracious!’ Creola said. ‘If Mr. Hayes knew that, he sure nuff have a duck fit.’
‘Her name Rosa somebody. Parks, I think.’ Sweet Pea continued. ‘She riding back home from work on the bus and wouldn’t let go her seat to a white man. Say she was too tired to move.’
‘That what she say? Too tired to move?’ Creola started laughing as if that was the funniest thing she had ever heard. She began singing the words like a gospel song. ‘Too tired. Too tired to move. Law! Law! Too tired to move.’ She laughed harder, setting her mighty breasts to wobbling.
Sweet Pea and Vida broke up too. Maggie mouthed the words, but didn’t seem to recognize the tune.
‘Um-hmm!’ Creola said, wiping her eyes. ‘I know how Rosie feels. Bone weary. Ain’t that something? So that’s what started it all. Rosie not getting up off her feet.’
‘Rosa,’ Sweet Pea corrected. ‘Hauled her off to jail for it.’
‘Thank you, Lord!’ Maggie sang out, sounding as if she thought the more colored folks in jail the better.
‘Rosie a maid?’ Vida asked.
‘Rosa, I believe her name was,’ Sweet Pea said. ‘No. Weren’t no maid. I believe it said she sewed clothes.
‘Law, Law.’ Creola chuckled to herself. ‘That’s what we sure nuff need around here. Somebody too tired to move for the white man. Maybe Rosie come here, you reckon? We throw together a club like Miss Pearl and her white lady friends. League, they call themselves. I ‘spect we can be a league as good as they can.’”
Two young women who can’t stand each other get thrown together in one house…two women who have been taught and thoroughly believe they have absolutely nothing in common. It’s a perfect set up for all kinds of things to happen.
Although I didn’t particularly like Hazel, I did recognize her from my days of growing up in the South. She’s a fragile woman looking for her self esteem and worth from the people around her instead of from inside herself. In some ways, Vida is her opposite because she has been brought up to believe she is far worthier than the circumstances she finds herself in. That lends her an inner strength that keeps her from completely crumbling when her world falls utterly apart. At the same time, both women have been taught that their context, the world around them can never change. What a shock it had to be when Rosa Parks, in her quiet defiance, did something neither of them thought possible. All of the characters in this novel have been crafted with incredible depth. You will probably despise some of them but you will understand at least some of their self-justifications for why they behave as they do.
Jonathan Odell has knocked it out of the park again with Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League. He has captured the reality of the Jim Crow South; its idealism, its phenomenal complexity, its often mean-spiritedness, and its almost casual cruelty. He’s also given voice to what a difference people can make even when they don’t realize it. Bottom line: I was riveted to this novel. I laughed and cried, and could not put it down. It’s classic Southern literature laid bare with all of its pathos yet with an underlying kernel of hope. I highly recommend it and hope you’ll enter our giveaway.
Can’t wait to read it?
Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League was published on February 4, 2015, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks).
I’d love to get your comments on Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League, Jonathan Odell and his other work, and/or this review.
Click here to read our review of The Healing by Mr. Odell.
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One lucky reader will win a finished trade paperback copy of Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League by Jonathan Odell!
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