Reading Corner | Black and white unite in this family saga

“Dollbaby,” by Laura Lane McNeal.
“Dollbaby,” by Laura Lane McNeal. Courtesy image

Relationships within families and between blacks and whites are at the core of “Dollbaby” by Laura Lane McNeal. Set the story in New Orleans from 1964 to 1972 and the reader can imagine the conflicts that erupt.

The story opens on July 1 with Vidrine Bell leaving her daughter, Liberty “Ibby” Bell, on the doorstep of Ibby’s widowed paternal grandmother, Fannie Bell. Vidrine doesn’t tell Ibby where she’s going or when she’s coming back. Although Ibby, who is carrying the urn with her father’s ashes, will turn 12 on the Fourth of July, she has never met her grandmother.

Dollbaby goes to the porch to welcome Ibby, who is bewildered by her new surroundings and the experience of meeting a black servant. Doll and her mother, Queenie, are considered part of the Bell family, having been in the household for decades.

The repartee between these two black servants and the eccentric Fannie projects equality on an individual level, but scenes throughout the book show examples of inequality. For example, Doll dreams of opening her own dressmaking shop, but the “For Lease” sign on a storefront also says “No Negroes Need Apply.”

Further, the servants are listening to the radio in the kitchen when President Lyndon Johnson signs the Equal Rights Act on July 2, 1964. Doll embraces the signing and says, “That new law gone change everything.” Queenie answers, “It ain’t gone change nothing.” Fannie, who is watching television in the living room, yells, “How dare that good-for-nothing president interrupt my show!”

Fannie is a complex character fraught with secrets, prejudices and contrasts. She smokes cigarettes endlessly, is a bookie, drinks too much and is prone to depression. She is very wealthy but doesn’t acknowledge her generosity, yet she accepts Ibby unconditionally.

Annabelle Friedrichs, a classmate and neighbor of Ibby, is the quintessential example of bigotry and ridicules blacks at every turn. Ibby, who grew up in Olympia, Wash., has no inkling of the white-black divide. She is attracted to T-Bone, Queenie’s son, and kisses him in public, which causes a stir. She becomes friends with Doll’s daughter, Birdelia, which some consider inappropriate.

Grief, depression, racism, hopelessness, jealousy, murder, rape and death find a place in these pages. McNeal paints a picture of real-life segregation in the South at the time, and the deep emotions both blacks and whites feel about it.

At the end Queenie tells Ibby, “You, see, Miss Ibby, we always have been your family. And we always gone [CQ] be your family, whether you like it or not.”

The characters in “Dollbaby” come alive and leave lasting impressions. It’s a page-turner that is a welcome addition to a reader’s personal library.

Jo Ann Mathews, For The Sun News

New book on shark teeth

Ashley Oliphant, an English professor from North Carolina, has published “Shark Tooth Hunting on the Carolina Coast.” One of the chapters includes information about a world-record tiger caught on the Cherry Grove Pier and features and interview with Murrells Inlet native Marilyn Small.

The book is a guide on how to find and identify shark’s teeth found on the coast and includes a reference section. It’s available on Amazon and was published in June.

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At a glance

Title | “Dollbaby”

Author | Laura Lane McNeal

Publisher | Penguin Books

Length | 337 pages

Cost | $16