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I am not sure how I missed Laura Lane McNeal’s debut novel, DOLLBABY, when it was published in early July, but I am glad I caught up to it now. Set in New Orleans during the summer of ’64 when the Civil Rights movement was infiltrating the South, it’s a page-turner. The book opens with Ibby Bell (her real name is Liberty Alice Bell) being dropped off at the home of her wildly eccentric grandmother, Fannie, by her mom, Vidrine. Ibby’s dad died in an accident a few months ago, one that Ibby witnessed, and thus it’s far easier for Vidrine to hand her off than raise her. Just before she drives off, she hands Ibby an urn filled with her father’s ashes --- you know, the perfect hostess gift when you arrive at your grandmother’s house.
The big wild opener takes a calming new turn when Dollbaby heads down the walk to collect Ibby and sweeps her towards the house and into her new life. Dollbaby’s mom is Queenie, whose role is the cook at the house, but, in reality, she runs the house rolling according to Miss Fannie’s moods and doling out wisdom and love. Miss Fannie is known to have spells when she thinks about her past, ones that can take her away for extended psychiatric stays. There’s a lot of tragedy wrapped up within the walls of this Uptown mansion, and tons of secrets to boot.
Amid the craziness, there’s also humor. My favorite humorous scene occurs in a black church the Sunday after the Civil Rights Act is signed. Fannie is “away,” and thus Queenie and Dollbaby shepherd Ibby to their church. The preacher “asks for liberty.” Ibby takes him seriously, thinking of her real name, and marches to the front of the church. You can imagine the reaction.
Part two takes place in 1968, and part three is set in 1972, allowing us to see Ibby grow up and the story to take on a nice pace.
One more note. Often in books set in New Orleans, the city becomes a character, and “place” overtakes the storyline. That does not happen in DOLLBABY, and I love the book all the more for that. There is lots to talk about for book groups, and yes, New Orleans-inspired food is perfect for discussion fare.