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Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League


Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League

MISS HAZEL AND THE ROSA PARKS LEAGUE was originally published as THE VIEW FROM DELPHI, and has been refashioned and re-released with this new title. Intended to celebrate the 102nd birthday of the actual Rosa Parks, MISS HAZEL is the proud second take of a novel by Jonathan Odell. He has said in interviews that one of the reasons he decided to take another look at his work is because he has great white guilt about how superior he felt in the Jim Crow South, and to discover who he really is as a person and what he stands for.  

Creating a work of fiction that centers on the painful past of a segregated America, Odell has brought to life two women on either side of the race coin. Vida is black and haunted by the racism that runs rampant in her world. Hazel is white and is haunted by the death of her young child. Vida is hired to take care of Hazel after she tries to run down the baby Jesus in the manger scene at a nearby church. Their unexpected friendship turns both their lives and the popular culture around them into something greater than either could have created on their own.

Odell grew up during segregation in Mississippi and spent his college years selling THE EBONY PICTORIAL HISTORY OF BLACK AMERICA door to door in black neighborhoods, even though the Klan tried to keep him from his chosen task with constant threats. Clearly, these experiences have left quite an imprint on him. “You can’t go home again,” Odell said in a PBS interview, “but you can’t leave it behind either.”

Taking place in pre-civil rights Mississippi, MISS HAZEL is the framework for this story about two women caught up in trials and tribulations for which they have no responsibility. They begin by hating each other for what the other represents, and it is only through the pain of their losses that they come to see themselves as something other than stereotypes to be dismissed.

"...a recommended read, especially for those who are looking for something that matches the intensity and offers the possibility for discussion that THE HELP brought to reading groups all over the world."

Odell creates some visceral characters to support these main ones: a controlling white Senator who has seen better days, and his sister, Miss Pearl; Sweet Pea, the town whore; and Vida’s preacher father, Levi. Levi is the one who represents the way that spirituality amongst black families at the time kept them slaves to white ideals and Christian commitments about turning the other cheek and not venturing into an independent activist position to create a new world for the next generation. At one point, Levi loses his position and his church, and finds himself begging God to help him out of this morass:

“Let this cup pass. Lift up this yoke. Let this cup pass me by, oh Lord.”

Over and over he called, louder and louder each time until [Vida] was sure his voice resonated beyond this swampy place and thundered at the very door of heaven. He pleaded with God not to hide his face any longer, not to desert his good and faithful servant. He asked God to give him a mighty purpose and to please, please, show his face one more time…

“Send me a righteous story to live out.”

Levi’s adherence to religious tenets doesn’t work for him, the same way that Odell’s own upbringing brought him only guilt and not a sense of great power over others. In an interview, Odell admitted that “Northerners will read and study about racism but are very unwilling to walk into a relationship that’s different from them. They don’t broach black people…they become very politically correct. And Southerners? Southerners are arrogant. We think we know about ‘our’ black people because we grew up with them…. the South holds the future for the cure for racism because at least we talk.” Whether or not North or South dwellers are more likely to turn the course of racist reactionary behavior for good in American political and social life is not really the point here. The higher hopes that Odell held for his story tend to overshadow the accounts of these two women. But their voices are strong and ring out, despite the sometimes too-obvious striving for political correctness that underlines the novel’s dramatic events.

Vida and Hazel are both looking for a way out of their present hells. Odell looks at religion and racism, and finds them to contain power struggles that don’t benefit these women at all. In fact, it is almost as if he is examining every possible way for them to perhaps reach beyond their present stations before allowing them, and us, to accept that only through their understanding of each other’s situations can they begin to move towards a more humanist attitude about everything that is going on. Odell’s Delphi is rich in the pain and suffering that befell everyone during that despicable time of learning. And perhaps, on the anniversary of the birth of the Civil Rights Movement’s most worthy and unexpected activist, Hazel and Vida finally do realize that small actions are the only things that will save their personal lives as well as the life of their community and all its members, racist and progressive both.

The novel drives home some intensive directives about the forward motion of our black and white worlds. Vida and Hazel represent the best and worst of the struggle to live in a diversified world, where every member of it is celebrated appropriately and allowed to love, suffer and achieve in whatever way they are meant to do so by a higher power. That higher power is human consciousness, and it gets a hard-edged raising by the pains and purviews of the citizens of Delphi.

As Vida discovers at the end of the book, “[S]he understood deep in her bones what her father had meant. Even though she was a colored woman and maybe nobody would believe her, a story is made to be told and passed on. If it is picked up…enough times, the truth will at last shine through the telling…” And so Odell, through the second telling of his story, tries again to assuage his guilt and get at a truth that is both uncomfortable and freeing. MISS HAZEL AND THE ROSA PARKS LEAGUE comes very close to offering audiences both painful truths from the past and spectacular hope for the future. The book is a recommended read, especially for those who are looking for something that matches the intensity and offers the possibility for discussion that THE HELP brought to reading groups all over the world.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on February 6, 2015

Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League
by Jonathan Odell

  • Publication Date: February 4, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Maiden Lane Press
  • ISBN-10: 1940210046
  • ISBN-13: 9781940210049