Fast-paced but thoughtful story of a friendship across the racial divide in 1950s Mississippi.
Though he never lets whites off for their pervasive racism, African-American Odell is the rare writer on race who allows for a range of responses—and for the possibility of change. Among his finely drawn characters, both black and white, young—five-year-old Johnny is particularly memorable—and old, he introduces two whose lives are blighted by loss. Hazel Graham is white, well off, and married, but depressed; Vida Snow is black, poor, and hates whites. Hazel grows up poor but is determined to better herself, and does. She finds a good job, then a good man—Floyd—whom she marries. The two move to Delphi, Mississippi, where Floyd flourishes but Hazel founders. Not a good housekeeper, she is even less sure of her mothering skills when she gives birth to Johnny and Davie. But she acquires one skill—driving fast—that helps as she tries to cope with the death of Davie, and later when she is dodging the Klan. Vida Snow, the daughter of Levi, a preacher, is raped by Billy Dean, a redneck with political ambitions. She gives birth to Nate, and when Billy Dean wants to marry the daughter of the important senator, he torches Levi’s church and tries to kill Nate. Vida then sends Nate north for safety. Vowing that she’ll avenge what’s happened, she goes to mind Hazel, who has been hospitalized for alcoholism—after she drove her car through a manger scene. Initially, Vida despises both Hazel and her son Johnny, but the conventionally racist Hazel is too medicated to care. Still, the two find they have more in common than they suspected. As the Civil Rights movement heats up, they’ll become friends and fighters for themselves and for justice—as the bad get punished and the good get their due.
On balance, a promising first effort.