Book Review Thursday: Dollbaby

DollbabyThis is author Laura Lane McNeal’s debut novel which opens in 1964 just days before soon-to-be-twelve-year-old Liberty Alice “Ibby” Bell is dropped off at her eccentric grandmother’s house in New Orleans.  Vidrine Bell, Ibby’s mother, decides she needs time to herself following her husband’s unexpected death and drops Ibby off rather unceremoniously just days before Ibby’s twelfth birthday.  She has never met her grandmother, Frances “Fannie” Bell.

The cast of characters includes Queenie and Viola “Dollbaby” Trout, mother and daughter, who work for Fannie – Queenie had come with the house years ago when Fannie’s husband Norwood Bell purchased it for his bride.  The Civil Rights Act would shortly be signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and the story touches lightly on the subject here and there throughout the book.

Because she has worked so long for Miss Fannie, Queenie knows her and her eccentricities quite well.  Queenie’s advice to Ibby regarding her grandmother sets the tone for the rest of the book:

Queenie pointed a finger at Ibby. “Rule Number One in this house. Don’t ever go asking Miss Fannie about her past. Rule Number Two. She starts talking about her past, let her talk but don’t go asking questions. Rule Number Three. You see her hand start twitching, you better change the subject. Rule Number Four. You got something you want to know, you come ask one of us. But don’t never let on to Miss Fannie that I said nothing. That’s Rule Number Six.”
“That’s Rule Number Five, Mama. There ain’t no number six,” Doll said.

“Doll, shut your mouth. Miss Ibby knows what I’m getting at.”
Doll rolled her eyes. “Maybe Rule Number Six should be don’t argue with Mama.”
“That’s an unwritten rule. Don’t need a number.”

As it turns out, Fannie has a “past” that is slowly uncovered throughout the book and one filled with tragedy along the way, which makes for lots of twists and turns to the story.  Ibby’s story is a coming-of-age tale as she finishes growing up in Fannie’s home surrounded by Queenie, Dollbaby and their family members who are all considered part of Fannie’s family.

The book might remind many readers of The Help and it’s a good first effort for Laura McNeal.  I have read other reviews and some are dismayed at the comparison to other books like The Help, but McNeal’s story told through Ibby’s eyes has a different tone and theme, although there is, of course, the underlying civil-rights theme running through both books.

It’s an easy read, full of Southern charm via the eccentricities of Fannie and the mouth and wisdom of Queenie.  By the time the book winds down, the reader discovers the myriad family secrets which tie up all the loose ends and answer all the questions – with some surprises – just my kind of book.  The only criticism I have of the book is two or three instances of what I consider gratuitous vulgarity – totally unnecessary in my opinion in a book otherwise “family friendly.”

Rating:  ★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.


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