Friday, September 4, 2015

Historical Fiction: Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League by Jonathan Odell

I know that picking up any book set in 1950s America is going to deal at least a little bit with the racial tensions of the time. Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League by Jonathan Odell stares that tension in the face and crafts a whole story about it. The novel confronts pre-Civil Rights America and gives a fictionalized, but honest, account of what black people went through in the south, especially in the early days of boycotting buses and trying to vote.

The Situation: As a general rule, Vida isn't too fond of white people. But given what happened to her, her once prominent father, and the son she lost, she doesn't have much reason to be. And while she may work for Miss Hazel, she has her own reasons for taking the job as her maid, none of which have anything to do with the woman's well-being or her son. It is Vida's job to make sure Hazel doesn't start drinking again, especially if she's going to drive. Hazel's husband, Floyd, may be a good provider and a loving father, but he is ill-equipped to comfort his wife through the seemingly endless grief of losing her youngest son. Both women are mourning the same kind of loss, a loss that no mother ever wants to have. But they both believe the other one to be proud, hard-headed, and mean, until one day they are both able to come to an understanding, and see that what they have in common is more important than what they don't.

The Problem: In 1950s Mississippi, life isn't easy for black people, whether they work in the fields, in the house, or preach from their own pulpit. For Vida, things could easily be much worse should the sheriff decide to harass either her or her father, again. And when the Senator's daughter goes missing, Sheriff Billy Dean must find someone to pin the crime on in order to keep the pressure off of himself. Vida knows the sheriff is hiding something, but as a black woman in Delphi, Mississippi with a father to look after and a brother who could be caught at any moment selling moonshine, there isn't much she can do. And befriending Hazel doesn't offer much protection due to her own reputation in the small town. But with everything against them, the unlikely pair manage to get together with other black maids in the area and stir up trouble for anyone who would want to keep them powerless and scared.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in 1950s Mississippi. Slavery is over, but segregation and discrimination are still very much part of life for black people, especially the ones that live in the deep south. When Vida first starts working for Hazel, a woman named Rosa Parks makes headlines as she refuses to sit in the back of a bus and make room for a white person. Vida and other black maids in Delphi take a note from "Rosie," as they start calling her, and decide they want to make headlines of their own. Vida may not have ever found herself amongst such a group, or even in the job at Hazel's house, had it not been for what happened to her years ago at the hands of the sheriff. Now bent on revenge, for her, her son, and her father, Vida is determined to ruin that man's life and show him for what he is. Hazel deals with her grief a little differently, taking to the bottle and causing fear on the roads when she gets behind the wheel. Vida and Hazel are two women each experiencing loss in different ways. One black and poor, the other white and privileged, each have their own way of dealing with the past, and still manage to become unlikely friends. Hazel may experience injustice, but it is different from what Vida is put through. Odell tells a story of a black woman, with no power, and a white woman, with very little power of her own, in a town and time when white men have all of the influence and can get away with pretty much anything. He takes from the real historical accounts of the black women being the ones to make the first move when it comes to bringing about change in segregated America.

My Verdict: I always hesitate before picking up any book that deals with either slavery or Civil Rights. On the one hand, as a black person, it is easy to get tired of reading about it. But on the other hand, as a reader, I always like a good story, even if some parts are difficult to get through. There is plenty is Odell's story to make me wince, but nothing that made we want to stop and not continue. Life for black people in Odell's Delphi, Mississippi is far from easy. Sometimes it is barely even tolerable, but the novel isn't punishing about it, and still manages to be honest and up front about what the south was like in the 1950s. Also, it is a really interesting story. I always enjoy stories where the women stand up for themselves and make change happen, even if it is because they are tired of waiting for someone else to do it. There are moments where some of the characterization didn't quite work for me, but other than that, I enjoyed the book and the characters it introduced.

Favorite Moment: When Miss Hazel realizes that the sheriff doesn't think as highly of her as she clearly does of him.

Favorite Character: Vida's father, Levi Snow, was once a prominent preacher before tragedy struck at the hands of the sheriff. But although he has been reduced to working in people's yards and has become someone more to be pitied than revered, he has held onto his faith and is still someone many people look up to. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Supreme's at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore. It is a different type of story that follows three black women who became friends in the 1960s and who still remain close to this day, despite marriage, children, death, tragedy, addiction, and even scandal.  

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