Growing up in Mississippi, Jonathan Odell's ear was tuned to stories, particularly those of domestic workers, women who, like Rosa Parks, "existed on the bottom rung of the ladder of power" but who were the true heroes of the civil rights movement. A tale of love and grit amidst injustice, "Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League" traces the unlikely friendship of Hazel, a white woman, and her black maid, Vida, throughout an ugly time in our nation's history.
The story begins when Hazel and husband Floyd move to Delphi, a storybook town overlooking cotton fields and sharecroppers shacks. While Floyd runs the town's Lincoln dealership, Hazel struggles to fit in with high-society women, those "formidable-looking creatures … dripping with brooches and breastpins and cameos like generals on inspection." To feel in control, Hazel takes to drinking and driving — a bad combination, but the only thing that eases her anxiety.
Watching Hazel tool around town is Vida. Vida lives below Delphi with her preacher father. Some years earlier, Vida's young son was snatched from her arms by Billy Dean Brister, soon-to-be-mayor of Delphi, a man who raped Vida and is set on destroying the evidence. Bereft, vengeful, missing her boy, Vida sees Hazel as a spoiled white woman unappreciative of the sons she totes around town. Hazel, for her part, barely notices Vida.
When one of Hazel's sons dies, she falls apart. After crashing her car on the sheriff's lawn, she is sent away, after which she returns home drugged and dazed, seeing "the world in a kind of stark, harsh glare … [S]he knew she had a husband who barely tolerated her, and one child that was alive and wanting and the other dead and gone." She also sees Vida, her new maid, alternately bringing her pills and spying on the sheriff next door.
Against the historical backdrop of violence and segregation (the body of Emmett Till is pulled from the river; Vida's father is beaten for trying to vote; Rosa Parks inspires a boycott), the maids of Delphi gather to commiserate. Eavesdropping from the stairs, Hazel is enlightened and invigorated. Gradually, Hazel and Vida become friends.
It's a riveting journey — tense, horrific, humorous, peopled with vivid characters: Johnny, Hazel's surviving son, is a sad, fierce little boy. Levi, Vida's father, is kinder to a grieving child than the boy's own father is. Pearl, the senator's sister, speaks with Faulknerian wisdom but really "ain't so much nice as she is stupid." And the maids themselves — what history might note about Rosa Parks, the maids make lively and real: "Rosie's stirring up a lot of trouble for white folks. … They say she forgot who she was. Forgot her place. … I figger it was the other way 'round. I figger she remembered who she was."
This is an important story beautifully told. It is why we read novels. You will care about these characters — and emerge more aware and empathetic because of them.
Christine Brunkhorst, a Minneapolis writer and reviewer, teaches English at St. Thomas Academy.