Book Review - Jonathan Odell entertains and educates in new novel

'Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League' wants to give us all a history lesson

When you hear about the premise of Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League, your first thought might be: "Do we really need another book about poor African-Americans serving white families in the Jim Crow South?" The complexities of race are daunting, and the last thing readers want is another white author oversimplifying an experience on which he or she has little authority. But through an entertaining narrative, historically minded setting, and large cast of nuanced characters, Jonathan Odell makes a persuasive case for his newest novel.

Set in the fictional town of Delphi, Miss., in the 1950s, Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League tells the story of a wealthy white woman and her poor black caretaker who form an unlikely friendship. Hazel Graham and her husband are new in town, but they quickly ascend the social ladder, joining the ranks of a state senator, bank president, and the county's deeply racist sheriff. But when an accident at the Graham's new home takes the life of their youngest son, Hazel enters a state of depression and sets off on an unpredictable path.

Vida has also experienced the loss of a child. But rather than allowing it to set her back, she swears revenge on the man responsible for dismantling her family. This man just so happens to be Hazel's neighbor, so Vida gets a job as her caretaker, administering antidepressants and keeping tabs on the folks next door.

For a book that centers on Hazel and Vida, these two characters don't really interact until two-thirds through the novel. But in Delphi, everyone knows everyone, and through a complex web of relationships, the narrative eventually closes the gap, providing these two women with the opportunity to discuss something other than Hazel's meds. It's at this point where a good narrative becomes a great one. Hazel and Vida form the Rosa Parks League, a small group of maids with names like Creola and Sweet Pea. The Rosa Parks League seeks to register Delphi's first black voters, but it has no misconceptions about the town's unfair voting laws. What the Rosa Parks League signals is not a political overhaul, but simply a step in the right direction for Delphi.

Growing up in Laurel, Miss., in the 1950s, Odell has drawn on a number of sources from his personal life as inspiration for the novel. He takes his memory of this period seriously. But more importantly, he also values the parts that he doesn't remember. "The first thing that hit me when writing the book was an emphasis on how little we know about black history, how much was going beyond the white gaze, how many acts of heroism were happening under the veil of Jim Crow," he says.

Odell peppers in references to Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr., who, because they are historical figures, make Hazel, Vida, and the Rosa Parks League seem all the more real. He says that his reason for emphasizing the novel's historical elements is to bring attention to the role that women played, not only during the Civil Rights Movement, but also throughout history. Indeed, readers will recognize many of the novel's historical elements, but they will also see a side of this period that seems entirely new.

For Odell, the way to get readers to believe the history is by constructing tangible characters. This starts with abolishing what he refers to as the "magical black character" found in novels like The Help. "I wanted to put a strong black woman on the page, whose every breath did not depend on reacting to white people," Odell says. "A woman who had her own trajectory, her own sense of power, her own complexities, her own flaws."

Odell says that as a gay man, he relates to the frustrations behind this trope. "That's all the gay movies used to show," he says, "the straight people saving a gay man from AIDS or death by himself."

Fortunately for readers, Odell has written Vida, a young, self-possessed, black woman who often leaves us wondering what her next move is. In the hands of a less confident writer, the tragedy that Vida undergoes early in the novel could easily have become her defining trait, but Odell allows her feelings to surface and submerge in a way that comes across naturally.

Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League isn't going to replace To Kill a Mockingbird in school curricula, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to add it.

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