In the vein of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt and The Help, McNeal’s touching coming-of-age tale brings to life Civil Rights–era New Orleans.
When 12-year-old Ibby’s father dies in an accident, her no-good mother, Vidrine, hauls her across the country to live with a grandmother she’s never met: the tragic, eccentric and indomitable Fannie Bell. Fannie's big house in New Orleans is like nothing Ibby’s seen in Olympia, Washington; of particular note are the two black women, Queenie and her daughter Dollbaby, who work there. Soon, Ibby learns the Fannie Rules: Don’t ask questions, don’t unlock the doors on the second floor, and don’t talk about the past. Infractions send Fannie to the mental hospital for a “rest,” a not-infrequent event. Ibby begins private school and becomes friends with Dollbaby’s daughter Birdelia; though the same age, they live remarkably different lives in the segregated South. Dollbaby goes to lunch-counter sit-ins, her brother T-Bone goes to Vietnam, the Civil Rights Amendment is passed, and slowly, the old guard of the South gives way to hippies. The story wanders gently along: Ibby has a Sweet 16 party, an old tree falls on the house, nasty Annabelle Friedrichs accuses T-Bone of rape (this lie is easily revealed thanks to Miss Fannie’s cleverness), and though at times the plotting is overly episodic, with few natural transitions to link the scenes, McNeal’s portrait of a time and place is rich enough to mitigate the flaws. Slowly, a picture of Fannie’s past emerges, one that explains the frequent visits to the mental hospital and also her great generosity. At Fannie’s mysterious demise, final secrets are revealed—truths that will tug a tear from the hardest of hearts.
Rich characterization makes McNeal’s debut a lovely summer read.