Two women's lives intersect in one 10-year-old girl, changing the futures of all three in this engrossing paean to the power of friendship.
The scene is set in 1955 Shakerag, the black suburb of Tupelo, Mississippi, where Billie lives with her mother, Betty Jewel Hughes, and her grandmother, Queen. Betty Jewel was once a celebrated jazz singer married to the equally famous trumpet player Saint. However, that was before Saint became a drug addict and Betty Jewel escaped from him to raise her adored Billie with the help of Queen. The three females have lived a hard-scrabble yet cozy life together in their tiny blue house, even though Billie yearns to experience Saint as the father she's never known.
"THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH weaves together heartbreak and joy, tension and harmony, into a moving tale that lingers in the mind long after the last page has been turned."
Now, though, everything has changed. Betty Jewel, stricken with terminal cancer, can no longer work. Queen is in the declining health that inevitably accompanies advanced age. Betty Jewel is determined that Saint will not raise Billie. Although she has two very close friends who have volunteered to step in when the time comes, these women are already precariously perched on the cliff of financial ruin; Betty Jewel well knows they can't afford to adopt her child.
Betty Jewel is apprehensive. She feels her death coming ever nearer. Who will love and raise her darling Billie?
In her upscale white society neighborhood in Tupelo, Cassie Malone struggles to recover from the death of her husband, Joe. Cassie enjoys writing for the local newspaper, although some readers have found her liberal stance on racial equality and civil rights problematic. When she spots a heart-rending newspaper ad, she can't forget it:
"Desperate. Nowhere to turn. Dying woman seeks mother for her child. Loving heart required."
Cassie decides that she simply must interview the woman who placed the ad. Childless Cassie is moved beyond words at the nearly biblical undertaking of the unknown mother. Maybe a newspaper story will help connect the mother and child with a loving home. Luckily, Cassie is sure she can persuade her editor that he needs this piece. When that doesn't work, she manages to ignore his warning that the writer of the ad is located in Shakerag. Because of unrest, he says, it would be dangerous for a white woman to poke around that community.
In Shakerag, Betty Jewel is horrified when she hears who is on the way to interview her. However, Queen admonishes her that living a life filled with falsehoods will destroy her remaining days. Cassie and Betty Jewel are destined to meet…and what happens next is a shocking revelation that sets both women on a quest filled with seemingly impossible hurdles, not to mention the possibility of almost unimaginable rewards.
Author Elaine Hussey pulls the reader directly into these women's lives by making each character's personality fully three-dimensional. We feel both Betty Jewel and Cassie's dreams, fears, sorrows and hopes as if they were our own. The Mississippi setting surrounds us with the tantalizing scent of barbecue and the faint wistful notes of blues played on the harmonica as we eagerly read on. THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH weaves together heartbreak and joy, tension and harmony, into a moving tale that lingers in the mind long after the last page has been turned.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on August 1, 2013