Saturday, March 7, 2015

Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League

by Jonathan Odell
Maiden Lane Press    2015
442 pages     Fiction

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery. I have many memories of that day, mostly because I wasn't there. Many of my Morningside College friends went to the march on a bus and came back filled with great fervor for the Civil Rights movement. I couldn't go because I had to work but more because I didn't have any money. I remember calling my parents and crying on the phone because of the decision I had made not to go. They, of course, were probably relieved, although they spoke to me with pride about my dedication to equal rights.

The book Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League by Jonathan Odell is a novel whose time has come.  It was originally published as The View from Delphi several years ago, but the author decided to take another look at his manuscript and change the focus a bit. It was published last month by my friend Marly Rusoff at Maiden Lane Press. The reimaging is gaining great favor and marvelous reviews.

Miss Hazel is a young wife in the small town of Delphi, Mississippi. Totally out of her element in this uppity community, she turns to alcohol and a fast car to try to assuage her lack of self worth as a wife of the local car dealer and the mother of two young boys. When one of her sons dies, she descends into a hell of despondency and has to be treated at a mental hospital.

Vida, a young black woman, lives down in the bottoms with her father Levi, who is a preacher. She is living her own hell because her little boy, Nate, has been torn away from her. She becomes Miss Hazel's caretaker when Hazel returns from the mental hospital. She also takes care of little Johnny, Miss Hazel's living son, who is trying to make sense of what has happened to his brother and what is happening to his mother.

Vida doesn't really want the job with this despondent mother and depressed little boy, but she has very little choice in the matter. She needs the job to take care of her father. Meanwhile, her father is looking for a cause. The Civil Rights movement is in its infancy. The black community is hearing tales about "Rosie" Parks and Dr. King, and voting rights. Levi keeps praying to God to "send me a righteous story to live out."  Finally, Levi decides to try to register to vote and is thrown into jail. The black maids in Delphi plot ways to get Levi out of jail and to register to vote themselves. Gradually Vida and Hazel reach an equanimity, and Hazel finds a new self worth by helping the women in their quest to vote and as they form the "Rosa Parks League."  In one telling exchange, Hazel says to Vida: "Vida, you wrong. I do care how you die." Vida responds, "But do you care how I live?. . .Being my friend and all like you claim, you got to want me to live my life free and equal."

This is the bare bones of a plot that is very deep, very intense, and frankly, not too easy to read. For a long time, I could only relate to little Johnny and preacher Levi. I never did like Hazel or Vida. But that doesn't matter. Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League is a powerful depiction of a time in our history that those of us born and raised in the North could only partially understand. My friends who went to Selma to march 50 years ago this weekend came home knowing that they were part of something important, but they marched and came back to their northern lives. They were not trying to live their lives in the middle of a place that was beginning to lose its identity, like the people in Odell's story.

The reviewer for the Book Reporter says that when Odell tells his story for the second time, he gets at a truth that is "both uncomfortable and freeing."  Odell says "When we allow the truth of another's story to enter our lives, we are transformed."

The review in Book Reporter.
Jonathan Odell's video about his views on race in America.

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