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'Dollbaby' by Laura Lane McNeal: Wonderful debut novel

Fabulous novel about New Orleans during the civil rights era
courtesy of Pamela Dorman Books

Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal


"Dollbaby" by Laura Lane McNeal is a story about New Orleans and the people who live there. Compared to the rest of the country, NOLA is a crazy kind of town, and many of the people who live there and their eccentricities are just as crazy.

Ibby (Liberty) Bell arrives at her grandmother Fannie's house just before her twelfth birthday. Ibby grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and when her father died, her mother brought her to live at her grandmother's house in New Orleans. Her mother, Vidrine, seems a nasty person from the start. She basically throws Ibby out of the car with an urn containing her father's ashes.

The story is told from two viewpoints -- Ibby's and Doll's. Doll and her mother, Queenie work for Fannie. Queenie has worked for Fannie since Fannie was a young bride who knew nothing about New Orleans society. Over the course of the story, the reader will learn more about Fannie and her life.

New Orleans in 1964 was a segregated city as was most of the South. Doll explains to Ibby how she didn't mind sitting in the back of the bus because before that, there were dedicated "colored" buses that non-whites had to take. They ran sporadically, and it was difficult to get places on time. At least riding the same bus meant that people could get where they were going on time.

The story skips from 1964 to 1968 and then 1972. The reader will witness President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act and see how the blacks felt about that. Some felt that real change would be made while others felt that nothing would be different.

Because the story is told through the eyes of girls of both races, readers will see New Orleans from all points of view. McNeal also brings up the subject of mental illness. Fannie spends time in the hospital when her emotions get out of control, and there are things in Fannie's past that cause that to happen over and over again.

McNeal manages the telling of the story well -- she doesn't tell all at the beginning but rather doles out small pieces of the story throughout the book so that the reader will begin to put it all together like a puzzle. The heat, the customs, the restaurants, and the funerals will all have readers ready to make their own visits to New Orleans.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Pamela Dorman Books, for review purposes.

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