It’s a summer day in 1964. A bewildered almost-12-year-old Liberty (Ibby) Bell stands at a New Orleans curb, looking up at her grandmother’s mansion. Ibby’s father just died, and her mother has dumped her off to stay with Grandmother Fannie, a woman the child has never met. Ibby’s mother says she needs a little time to pull herself together. It only will be for a few days, a week at the most. As Ibby is wondering what she did to cause her mother to desert her, a large black woman comes out and ushers her inside the house. That would be Queenie, Miss Fannie’s cook, a formidable and wonderful presence, and Ibby’s salvation. Along with Queenie’s daughter, Dollbaby, the girl will be in good hands.
"Beautifully rendered and perfectly paced, DOLLBABY is one novel this year not to be missed, with just the right amount of mystery mixed with coming-of-age drama."
Miss Fannie herself is a woman to be reckoned with in her own right, although she is sometimes subject to spells that land her in the local asylum for short stretches. Tragedies in her life occasionally come back to haunt and overwhelm her. When that happens, Queenie sees to it that Miss Fannie gets the rest she so desperately needs. Frances Hadley Bell came from rough beginnings, clawing her way up to become a nearly proper lady. Now no one wants to tangle with Miss Fannie, but it would be hard to find anybody in New Orleans who didn’t have at least a grudging respect for her. True, she has some very strong opinions, often at odds with the conventions of the day, making her a tough woman to gauge and an endearing one all the same. Despite her apparent crust, she has a generous spirit and a soft heart. And her granddaughter Ibby has stolen that.
Ibby spent the first years of her life far away, in Olympia, Washington, a place where manners are as different from New Orleans as its weather. As her days in the South turn into weeks and then months, the girl slowly warms to her grandmother who, eccentric though she is, appears to love her granddaughter very much. And hovering around like a couple of extra mothers, Queenie and Dollbaby fawn over and guide Ibby through the difficulties of being a teenager in the turbulent ’60s.
By this point, much of Miss Fannie’s kinfolk have disappeared, so she has adopted Queenie’s. The cook’s husband, daughter, sons and Dollbaby all enjoy roles in the Bell household, making it a richer and more interesting place. This comes during the struggles surrounding the Civil Rights Act, which did not glide gently into New Orleans. Rather, it came in kicking and screaming, with marches, lunch counter occupations and begrudged school integrations, leaving bodies in its wake. Some of its violence hits a bit close to Miss Fannie’s home.
A novel of the South, Laura Lane McNeal’s debut will warm hearts because of its memorable women embroiled in a compelling family saga. It’s set during an era that saw a lot of change and drew a good deal of anger. It took strong people to make it through; so it is that Miss Fannie, Queenie and Dollbaby have the strength of character to stand up to the trials of the times. Ibby needed the love of those three nurturing mothers to help her through the grief of losing both of her parents at such a tender age.
Beautifully rendered and perfectly paced, DOLLBABY is one novel this year not to be missed, with just the right amount of mystery mixed with coming-of-age drama. And dare we hope that we next see Miss Ibby Bell as she enters her 20s?
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on August 8, 2014