March 8, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. — Odell's book is set in the small town of Delphi, Mississippi, which is similar to the one in which he grew up in the 1950s.
Odell says he tore up the usual "scripts" you find in stories from the civil rights movement. His characters are so authentic and familiar -- so similar to some of his own friends and relatives -- that Odell wondered what the reaction would be when they read his book.
"My dad read it and he said, 'You can't show this to your momma,'" Odell recalls. "I said, 'Why not, Daddy?' He said, 'It'll kill her. It'll just crush her! You can't show her this stuff.'"
Odell says the book had begun as a casual research project into his roots -- a reconciliation between his adult life as a northern business consultant and his lonely childhood in rural Mississippi. Then, one night in the spring of 1988, Odell was watching a program about Martin Luther King when he had a bit of an epiphany.
"I'd seen all of this before. But for the first time, I noticed the people on the side of the street who were throwing the rocks at him, or jeering, or waving their Confederate flags. And I thought, 'God, those are my relatives,'" Odell says. "And then it hit me -- this isn't black history, this is my history. It happened all around me."
Odell says he set out to throw away what he calls the "scripts" of the usual stories about the civil rights movement in the South.
He decided this would be a novel told not in the public spaces in which the movement unfolded -- the lunch counters, the courthouse steps, the town squares -- but it would live in the intimate places that blacks and whites shared.
"Black women and white women shared intimate spaces in homes, and raising the kids," says Odell. "We shopped together in stores, we walked together in streets. In a town of 5,000 or 10,000 you couldn't separate us."
Yet that proximity did not blunt the simmering suspicion and resentment between the races -- an inability, says Odell, to see the other as individual. It was that knowledge around which Jon Odell created his two central characters.
Hazel is a white woman, raised poor in the hardscrabble hills with little schooling. She marries an ambitious man, has two sons, loses one, and descends into the haze of an alcoholic grief.
That's when Vida is hired. She's been brought up as the cossetted black daughter of a preacher who falls from grace. Vida is forced into sharecropping, and ultimately into work as a maid in Hazel's house. But she, too, has lost a child -- she sent him away when he was a toddler, under threat from the county's white sheriff.
In one passage from the book, Vida tells her brother of her hatred for white people.
Vida knew Willie hated the sheriff as bad as she did. They had both watched their father as he lost everything. The house, his churches, his respect, and according to Willie, his mind. As for Vida, she had found a way to stop the useless flow of tears. Even though it was the sheriff she wanted dead, she soothed herself with visions of murdering white people. She though of smothering them in their beds with feather pillows. Tying up their children in croaker sacks and dropping them off the bridge over the Hopalachie River. Burning whole families alive in their houses. Cooking them in wash pots. Boiling them alive with the lye soap. Vida had come up with more than a hundred ways to kill a white person.
The one she liked best of all was getting every cook from all the white kitchens together and settling on a day to put rat poison in the soup. She figured she could wipe out the county's entier white population over supper. The fantasy helped the disagreeable idea of being a maid go down easier.
Odell says he drew Vida and Hazel as complex, authentic women -- by turns petty and generous, demanding and dignified.
"I didn't want to create two women where one had to save the other," he says. "These two women are willful, and they're both angry, and they both want something better for themselves and their families."
And, ultimately, they'll each have to re-invent themselves.
"They're both isolated, they have no one else to reach out to in their own community. And the question is, can they reach across race to find something that brings them together ... and that is the loss of a child," he says.
But the bond between them builds ever so slowly. In this scene, one of the turning points in the novel, Vida confronts Hazel about the inequity of their relationship.
"You don't like our little chats, Vida?" asked Hazel, sounding small.
"You the onliest one chattin. I the one jerkin my fool head up and down like a chicken in a yard full of corn. It just ain't natural." Vida dropped her eyes to the floor. "Anyways, my peoples is startin to talk. And I reckon so is yours."
"Well, let em talk. What they gonna say anyway?"
"I can't speak for the white folks, but my peoples is askin if you tryin to be colored. And some wont to know if I tryin to be white."
"That's the silliest thing I ever heard!" Hazel said. "I talk to you because you understand me. I can tell you things I can't tell nobody else."
Vida shot Hazel a look sharp as a pick. "Why is that, Miss Hazel?"
"Because -- "
"Cause why?" fired Vida. "Cause I won't tell nobody?"
Hazel gripped the back of a kitchen chair, like her legs were going wobbly.
"How do you know I don't tell nobody?" Vida pressed. "How you know I don't tell my friends everthing you say? And all about you drankin and drivin?"
Hazel look as if she could cry. "But I don't care what you tell your friends."
"No, I reckon you don't. All my friends is colored. Don't matter what colored folks think."
"Vida, you're putting words in my mouth. I care about what you think."
"Then tell me," Vida demanded, "What do I think? What I thinkin right now? Tell me what it is I fret over everday? Tell me what it is keeps me up at night worryin. Tell me what you know about my sufferin. What it is I done lost."
"The both of us lost our boys, Vida. Ain't we got that together?" Hazel's eyes were tearing up. "I thought we was friends."
"I clean yo house," Vida said sullenly. "That makes me your maid, not yo friend. That's the difference between colored folks and white. You get to pick me as a friend and I ain't got no say about it."
Vida turned back to her dishwater, so she couldn't see the hurt on Hazel's face any longer. But her insides felt like they were crumbling, caving in like a house afire, one floor at a time.
And yet, though the women don't realize it, something else unites them -- a powerful, determined sense of hope. Odell says he's done a lot of thinking about that, and believes that hope is a two-edged sword in the South, especially if you're poor.
"Hope is a drunkeness, hope is an irresponsibility," Odell says. "My father's job in our family was 'joy management.' You could not rest on your laurels too long."
That resonated with native Mississippian Diane Shepherd. She runs a bookstore in downtown Hattiesburg, between the main street and the railroad tracks. She says Jonathan Odell got it right.
"I loved it. I could hardly put it down," Shepherd says of the book. "It so epitomizes how we are in the South. About the best I can describe it is, this is how we are."
"How we are." Odell says as a gay, often solitary young man, he was never part of "we."
"Belonging in the South is the best feeling God ever gave anybody. It is a glorious feeling," says Odell. "But not belonging in the South is hell. It is horrible, It is bad. Because if you don't belong, you stand out, and there is no little group you can go to to feel like you belong. You're not just eccentric. You're a traitor."
As for his mother's reaction, Odell says she wasn't crushed by the book's similarities to his own upbringing. Just the opposite -- Odell says his mother loved the book and speaks on his behalf in southern cities. He calls her his best salesperson.