Like the author, I grew up in the Jim Crow South. It’s so familiar to me that when I received Jonathan Odell’s book and scanned through the pages, it felt a little worn. Oh no, I thought. A re-play of The Help.
Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League is actually the second rendering of Odell’s debut novel, The View from Delphi, published in 2005 four years before The Help. So I wondered: How many times does a Southern author, or any Southerner for that matter, need to apologize for a past that included racism?
In interviews, Jonathan Odell gives two reasons for his first rendition and then his re-execution of the book:
1.Guilt. Because as a white man, he felt superior in the Jim Crow South.
2.To find out who he is as a person.
Number Two first. We are human, and many human beings bear unjustifiable crosses. Whatever our race, we all suffer, in a myriad of personal ways. Finding out who we are seems to come from how we handle the suffering of others, as well as our own. The first question would be, Can we talk about it sensibly and sincerely?
Next, Number One: “You can’t go home again,” Jonathan Odell said in a PBS interview, “but you can’t leave it behind either.” I assume he means the guilt.
Now, that’s true. And if we want to leave it behind, a truthful conversation between “you and me” is required. That conversation begins within the pages of Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League.
Despite my weariness with stories of racism in the South, I believe Odell offers a fresh understanding. Though his novel certainly bears similarities to The Help, it reads less politically correct and more genuine in its characterizations.
Set in pre-Civil Rights Mississippi, Miss Hazel tells a story of two young mothers, Hazel and Vida—one wealthy and white, the other poor and black. The women only have two things in common: the devastating loss of their children and an initial, deep loathing for one another.
An example from the book: Hazel has just told Vida that she cares about what Vida thinks.
“Then tell me,” Vida demanded, “what do I think? What I thinking right now? Tell me what it is I fret over every day? Tell me what keeps me up at night worrying. Tell me what you know about my suffering. What it is I done lost.”
Hazel’s eyes were tearing up. “I thought we was friends.”
“I clean your house,” Vida said sullenly. “That makes me your maid, not your friend. That’s the difference between colored folks and white. You get to pick me as a friend and I ain’t got no say about it.” Vida turned back to her dishwater so she wouldn’t see the hurt on Hazel’s face any longer. But her insides felt as if they were crumbling, caving in like a house afire, one floor at a time.
Odell explores the origin of Vida’s hatred, the white-trash roots of Hazel, Hazel’s husband’s determination to succeed and the corruption of the white sheriff, Billy Dean Brister. He examines the controlling old white Senator and his sister, Miss Pearl, and even Sweet Pea, the town whore. But one character speaks loudest about racism—Vida’s preacher father, Levi, a symbol of the Christian convictions held by many blacks at that time. When Levi loses his position and his church, he puts a finger on the religious pulse of his people—and of this book:
“Let this cup pass. Lift up this yoke. Let this cup pass me by, oh Lord.”
Over and over he called, louder and louder each time until [Vida] was sure his voice resonated beyond this swampy place and thundered at the very door of heaven. He pleaded with God not to hide his face any longer, not to desert his good and faithful servant. He asked God to give him a mighty purpose and to please, please, show his face one more time…
“Send me a righteous story to live out.”
Odell has written a righteous story. What he says about the book, however, may be worthier than the book itself.
In a 2004 PBS interview, he observes that Northern racism takes comfort in Southern racism, but he admits that Southern racism also takes comfort in the Northern brand. He explains that the two differ greatly:
“Northerners will read and study about racism but are very unwilling to walk into a relationship that’s different from them. They don’t broach black people … they become very politically correct. And Southerners? Southerners are arrogant. We think we know about ‘our’ black people because we grew up with them.”
Odell goes on to say that “the South holds the future for the cure for racism because at least we talk.”
In lines devoid of political correctness, the tragically elegant character Miss Pearl articulates the relationship between whites and blacks in the South: “We have hated and loved and killed and saved each other for three centuries … For all that time we’ve taken care of each other. Looked to each other. Not to the government, not to the community, not to the church. You can’t divide us any more than you can divide air.”
Possessing remarkable insight, Odell’s new take on an old book is a worthy read.
Kaye Park Hinckley is author of A Hunger in the Heart, published by Tuscany Press in 2013, and a short story collection, Birds of a Feather, published by Wiseblood Books in 2014. She writes a daily blog and blogs weekly at CatholicMom.com.