Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League (February, 2015) by Jonathan Odell is a revised and rewritten, edition of his original, second novel, A View from Delphi, first released in 2002. This newer version is being (re)published to coincide with the 102nd anniversary of Rosa Parks’ birth on February 4, 1913. An amalgamation of the best of Southern historical literature, Odell’s rendering of the fight for equality and the vote in the mid-1950s by black Americans is one of the best richly told, eye-opening stories of loss, grief, redemption, and what friendship truly means, regardless of one’s background and/or ethnicity.
Hazel, born and bred in the hills of Virginia, is swept away by Floyd Graham and his positive aphorisms and dreams of success to live the high-life in the small Mississippi delta town of Delphi. As Floyd’s car dealership flourishes, Hazel’s societal position flounders. Not sure of herself and extremely conscious of what her Southern gentry neighbors think of her as a wife and mother, she takes to drinking and driving up and down the town’s main street, soon becoming a scorned pariah. It isn’t until Hazel returns from a stint in a rehab facility when she comes to grips – through grief shared with Vida, the Graham’s colored maid – with the realities of Southern gentile hospitality. While Hazel’s struggles to find herself are intensely almost insurmountable, it is Vida’s struggles and those of her contemporaries that mark the meaty substance of Odell’s narrative.
Through the eyes and voices of his finely-drawn characters, this talented author draws heavily from his own rich Mississippi childhood to explore the primary behind-the-scenes pivotal roles of black domestics that helped precipitate the Civil Rights Movement. Spurred on by the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, and angered by humiliating relentless racism, Vida and her cronies hatch a plan – with Hazel’s help — to humiliate a cruel and greedy sheriff and win the right to vote for themselves. What transpires in this broadly painted plot with its many surprising – and often touching – twists, turns, and sub-plots is the stuff of which great novels are written.
Soaring high above the trite aphorisms of Southern “chick” literature, Odell incorporates the essences of other literary offerings in the same genre, putting his second novel alongside such notables as The Help, Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, and Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Not to mention the works of Eudora Welty, the pioneer of Southern fiction. Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League is a substantial, thought-provoking must-read worthy enough to be, pardon the pun, in their league.
Reviewed by June J. McInerney