In this debut novel, a battered wife in 1950s rural Georgia, aided by an unlikely group of loving souls, finds hidden reserves of strength and self-worth.
The spirit of Cieli Mae, Vidalia Jackson’s stillborn daughter, is the narrator of this tale; Vidalia’s husband, JB Jackson, caused her death by “pummeling” her mother. Vidalia never knows when JB will be home, but she knows that when he does arrive, she’s in for more beatings. JB uses his boyish good looks to get away with his crimes, which also include statutory rape. Vidalia keeps the existence of Cieli Mae a secret, and as the spirit grows, she becomes a witness to her mother’s inner and outer struggles. Despite many beatings, Vidalia manages to give birth to two healthy sets of twins, and she and Cieli Mae look after them with fierce loyalty. Whenever they’re threatened, Vidalia’s strength comes to the fore. She also finds support from the most unlikely places, including JB’s mother, who spends most of her time making excuses for her son but also helps her daughter-in-law regain her strength; Doc Feldman, who offers far more aid and support than required and has a secret of his own; and Ruby Pearl Banks, whose husband was murdered and lynched by local Ku Klux Klan members. Mantella draws each of these characters well, and there’s never a lack of action in the narrative. Some of the book’s colloquialisms (“At forty-some years of age, the doc turned up on the skinny side of just handsome enough”) may throw readers at the start, but they’ll grow to like them as the story goes on. Overall, this work, set in the Deep South in the 1950s and ’60s when battered wives had few rights and little recourse, shows readers how personal growth happens slowly and how strength builds when one has the help of one’s community.
An engaging story of overcoming terrible circumstances with temerity and grace.