Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League by Jonathan Odell
ISBN: 9781940210025 (hardcover)
ISBN: 9781940210049 (paperback)
Publication date: February 4, 2015
Publisher: Maiden Lane Press
Set in pre-Civil Rights Mississippi, Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League is the story of two young mothers, Hazel and Vida one wealthy and white and the other poor and black who have only two things in common: the devastating loss of their children, and a deep and abiding loathing for one another. Embittered and distrusting, Vida is harassed by Delphi’s racist sheriff and haunted by the son she lost to the world. Hazel, too, has lost a son and can’t keep a grip on her fractured life. After drunkenly crashing her car into a manger scene while gunning for the baby Jesus, Hazel is sedated and bed-ridden. Hazel’s husband hires Vida to keep tabs on his unpredictable wife and to care for his sole surviving son. Forced to spend time together with no one else to rely on, the two women find they have more in common than they thought, and together they turn the town on its head. It is the story of a town, a people, and a culture on the verge of a great change that begins with small things, like unexpected friendship.
Two women in 1950s Mississippi have seemingly little in common. One is a white upper-middle-class white woman born in poverty. The other is a black woman living in abject poverty. On the surface it doesn’t appear that these two women could have anything in common, but looks can be deceiving. Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League is the story of an unlikely friendship borne out of despair during a turbulent era.
Vida Snow led a somewhat glorious and sheltered life for a black child growing up in the 1950s in Mississippi. She was doted on by her father and treated like a princess. All that changed one evening in her fourteenth year of life. She was brutally raped. Vida ends up a mother before she turns fifteen and is devoted to her child Nate. Unfortunately for Vida and her son, the sheriff is willing to do anything to ensure his “child” is never exposed to the powers that be (namely his father-in-law). Vida eventually suffers one more indignity at the hand of her rapist and the father of her child, the loss of that child. The indignities are heaped on the Snow family when her father, the local minister, is accused of helping the NAACP, branded a militant, and ostracized by blacks and whites alike.
Hazel Ishee Graham was one of fourteen children born into a poor farming family. She worked hard to remake herself into a beauty and was determined to live a life better than the way she was raised. After marriage and the birth of two sons, Hazel is overwhelmed by her familial responsibilities. She doesn’t know how to cook and isn’t sure she knows how to raise children. Hazel doesn’t have perfect grammar and doesn’t quite fit in with the other women in town. The only thing she is good at is driving around town and looking good. It isn’t long before Hazel begins to seek solace in alcohol and driving. After the death of her youngest son, her desperation peaks. Hazel’s husband isn’t quite sure how to deal with the situation and hires a maid, Vida to see to it Hazel is taken care of (meaning medicated and kept away from alcohol). The only thing that Hazel and Vida have in common is they have both lost a child and that neither one is quite sure where they belong in a system that subjugates women to their husbands and societal rules and mores. When the story of Rosa Parks filters down to Mississippi, the Rosa Parks League (a small group of Black domestics) is born. This small group of Black women, with the assistance of one white woman, begins to fight for the right to vote and endures scorn, ridicule, and humiliation after humiliation.
It would be easy to say that Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League is a bit like The Help. Don’t get me wrong there are similarities (black domestic help and white women who hire the help), but the similarities are purely superficial in my opinion. Mr. Odell has provided a story that deals with racially inequality but this is ultimately a story about survival and friendship. Both Vida and Hazel overcome seemingly insurmountable hurdles in their lives: poverty, the loss of a child, and more. Both Vida and Hazel are victims of the society they live in and it doesn’t really matter that one is white and the other black. I found Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League to be an intriguing story and one that pulled me in from the first page to the last. I actually read the entire story in one afternoon and simply refused to put the book aside until I was finished. (Yes it is that good.) There are parts of this story that will bring a tear to your eye, parts that will make you laugh, and parts that will make you cringe. I strongly urge everyone to read Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League, not because of the subject matter or themes, but because it is simply one fantastic read.
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