Saturday, August 13, 2011

Miss McGhee by Bett Norris

Publisher:              Bywater Books

How do you review 285 pages of magnificence and do it justice?

Mary McGhee made a mistake and part of her penance is being exiled to a small Alabama town in 1948 to help run the lumber mill that the town depends on for survival. The mill has been left to a man with the mental development of a twelve year old and Mary turns to his wife, Lila Dubose, as a natural ally to combat the forces in the town who view her as an outsider and unqualified to run the business. 

In her own way, Lila is also an outsider because she was brought from a poor family to ostensibly be the wife of the town prince, but in reality to be his lifelong care giver, so many people resent her new wealth and prestige. As the women work together to strengthen the mill and the town, they are drawn into a relationship that, at that time, would not only earn them the condemnation of the town's people, but could earn them each a prison sentence. Years of living in secrecy take a toll on the women, but not their relationship, as the women learn that they have friends who support them, ironically most of whom come from the segregated Negro community. 

Eventually, everyone has something more to talk about than the women's relationship. The book progresses through the 1950s and into the 1960s, which sees the town trying to cope with the growing civil rights movement. Mary and Lila, who were already taxing the town's patience by helping the local Negroes, find themselves becoming more immersed in the movement. They have come to realize that, while they may not be able to alleviate the discrimination against them, they may be able to help someone else. There is an inevitable confrontation that demonstrates the level of homophobia and racism of the period, but also teaches other lessons.

Miss McGhee strikes so many chords beautifully that starting with one unfairly infers that it was better done than the others. Hopefully, it won't only be Southerners of a certain age who can grasp how well Bett Norris has captured the tone of the period just preceding and during the early years of the civil rights movement. Many white Southerners weren't blatantly racist as much as they were clueless. They lived in a society that they had never questioned, which Lila Dubose represents perfectly. Not until Mary challenges "the way things have always been" does Lila begin to realize the depth of injustice she has been taught to tolerate. 

Southern blacks didn't accept the system, but rather coped with something that they thought couldn't be changed; however, there was a group of black women who were acknowledged by both parts of society and respected for their wisdom, strength and dignity. Norris has captured those women in the figure of Annie who provides the force behind much of the story. The historical accuracy of this book creates a tone that will have the reader believing that these characters actually lived. 

The book reads more like an observation of real events than a fictional story. The mood is reminiscent of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird or Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding and just as compelling as either of them. The accuracy extends to the relationship between Mary and Lila. These are not two lesbians who are out and proud, defying society's conventions, but two women who are trying to nurture a relationship within the confines of the time. Yet, at the end of the story, the reader should sense that, with the unfolding of the black civil rights movement, the gay rights movement feels its first stirrings, which is also accurate.

Miss McGhee is one of those rare books that screams for a follow up. After writing such a powerful novel in her first attempt, Norris may be hesitant to try to recapture the magic, but the reader can only hope that she tries.

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