Monday, October 1, 2012

#BookReview: Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society - Amy Hill Hearth

If someone were to ask me to summarize Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society, I'd have to say that it's a cross between Fanny Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and the movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Love Julie Newmar.  If you've not read Fanny Flagg or seen the movie, I'll try to explain as best I can.  If my words fail to convince you to read the book, do it anyway and thank me later.

It's 1962 and the sleepy town of Naples, Florida is about to get a wake up call in the form of Jackie Hart.  Relocated there from Boston because of her husband's job working for the richest man in town, Naples has never seen anything like Jackie before.  She's loud and outspoken in a time and place where women are to be seen and rarely heard.  Before Jackie is done, Naples will be seeing and hearing a lot more from this woman.

Shortly after her arrival in town, Jackie starts the Collier County Women's Literary Society, though the group could easily be called the Island of Misfits.  Comprised of Dora, a recent divorcee and narrator of the story; Miss Lansbury, the town librarian; Mrs. Bailey White, an eccentric older woman whose claim to fame is murdering her husband; Plain Jane, no description needed; Priscilla, an African American maid; and Robbie-Lee, "Collier County's only obvious homosexual," the literary society becomes more than just a group of people that meet to discuss books.  They become a family.

I loved this book almost from the moment I started it and expected it to be light and fluffy through and through.  Then two things happened.  First, the group read Their Eyes Were Watching God, which they had to borrow from the "colored" library.  It was the first time that any of them, outside of Priscilla, became aware of Zora Neale Hurston, among other things.  Second, the group read The Feminine Mystique, which got Jackie all up in her feelings.  So as she's sitting there feeling sorry for herself, stuck being a middle class housewife, Priscilla points out the following to her:

"I was surprised that so many women were unhappy.  And I had to ask myself, What have they got to be so unhappy about? Most of us colored women would give anything to have the problems described in the book.  I mean, Negro women have always had to work.  We have to, because our men aren't paid a fair wage.  Compared to white men, I mean.  And obviously, there are some jobs - the good jobs - that colored men can't get at all, through no fault of their own.  So the women - colored women - we have had to hold hearth and home together.  One way or another, we need to bring money into the household.  That could mean picking watermelons in the field, like my grandma, or working for a white family, like I do.  Even the women who seem like they're not working - well, they're taking in laundry or ironing or mending.  So I guess what I'm saying is that the problems these ladies are talking about in the book - those are luxuries most colored women don't have."

Amy Hill Hearth could have ended the book right there and I would have been satisfied!  Priscilla's goal wasn't to make Jackie or anyone else feel bad about themselves, she simply brought another perspective that the group was unused to hearing or thinking about, living in their own bubble.  The author does a great job of fully developing her characters, making you love (and hate) some of their quirks, but understanding that each brings something necessary to the group.  I honestly didn't want the book to end.

For those thinking that Hearth's name sounds familiar, you'll remember her as the coauthor of Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years.  This is her first foray into fiction and she does an amazing job.  As Camille O. Cosby says of her, she "Honors and humanizes people and their wonderful diversities."

Published: October 2012
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

Theme: Dreamsville by Henry Mancini
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