Jonathan Odell, Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League (published by Maiden Lane Press, 2015)
Reviewed by Vikki Bynum
“Y’all know this is crazy don’t y’all? . . . Chances are we are going to end up dead.” (p. 365)
There is no exaggeration in Vida’s words to her four co-conspirators, three of them black maids like herself, the other a white housewife named Hazel, as the women secretly organize the Rosa Parks League of Hopalachie County, Mississippi. Jonathan Odell’s gripping new novel takes readers right inside the homes of 1950s’ Mississippians during a time when all hell broke loose after a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to accommodate a white man.
Rosa Parks, of course, was very real. Many histories have been written about her fateful actions that day, a watershed in the rise of the modern Civil Rights Movement. As only a gifted novelist can do, Odell takes us inside this history to explore the hearts and minds of those who lived it. The result is a story that bristles with truth and breathes life into the important role of black maids—and sometimes even their white “mistresses”—in building grassroots organizations that challenged segregation and vigilante violence in the Jim Crow South at great peril to their own lives.
Odell places his novel within the context of the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision that led in the South to white supremacist Citizens’ Council Leagues and a resurgence of Klan terror. Juxtaposing the backgrounds of his two major characters in unexpected ways, he avoids familiar stereotypes while remaining true to societal norms. Vida, a relatively privileged black child due to her preacher father’s status as a “reach-out man” to whites, learns in one dark moment just how powerless she truly is. Hazel, the daughter of Mississippi poor whites, rises in status through the time-honored means of marriage. Within the crazily intimate household space of mistress and maid, Vida and Hazel eventually breach the great divide of race through their shared sorrows of motherhood.
The novel’s white male characters offer contrasts in manhood. Hopalachie County sheriff, Billy Dean Brister, is vulgar and corrupt. His vicious brand of racism is countered by the genteel but no less oppressive attitude toward blacks exhibited by his father-in-law, the town patriarch reverentially called the “Senator.” And then there is Floyd, Hazel’s husband. A genial, well-meaning fellow whose religion is the power of positive thinking, Floyd wonders why his wife can’t find happiness in the “normal” household tasks of childrearing and cleaning—cleaning that consists mainly of directing her colored maid. And why doesn’t their boy Johnny play the same games that “normal” boys do? Mississippi has become a confusing, frustrating place for Floyd, who, despite his limits, is hopefully more representative of rank and file white Mississippians than either the sheriff or the Senator. Floyd, one senses, will adjust to the wrenching lessons he must learn.
When I was growing up, journalists commonly wrote that Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat that fateful day for the simple reason that her feet were “tired”—as though no organized struggle was necessary to launch a human rights movement, just the wondrous convergence of timing with a woman’s fatigue. Jonathan Odell emphatically rejects this trivialization of the twentieth century’s most important social and political movement through the telling of individual stories. It is the convergence of those stories—those personal histories—that empower seemingly powerless women to organize themselves against all odds.