Review: My Sweet Vidalia by Deborah Mantella

Review: My Sweet Vidalia by Deborah MantellaMy Sweet Vidalia by Deborah Mantella
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: literary fiction, Southern fiction
Pages: 272
Published by Turner Publishing on October 6th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

On July 4, 1955, in rural Georgia, an act of violence threatens the life of Vidalia Lee Kandal's pre-born daughter. Despite the direst of circumstances, the spirit of the lost child refuses to leave her ill-equipped young mother's side.
For as long as she is needed―through troubled pregnancies, through poverty, through spousal abuse and agonizing betrayals―Cieli Mae, the determined spirit child, narrates their journey. Serving as a safe place and sounding board for Vidalia's innermost thoughts and confusions, lending a strength to her momma's emerging voice, Cieli Mae provides her own special brand of comfort and encouragement, all the while honoring the restrictions imposed by her otherworldly status.
Vidalia finds further support in such unlikely townsfolk and relations as Doc Feldman, Gamma Gert and her Wild Women of God, and, most particularly, in Ruby Pearl Banks, the kind, courageous church lady, who has suffered her own share of heartache in their small Southern town of yesteryear's prejudices and presumptions.
My Sweet Vidalia is wise and witty, outstanding for its use of vibrant, poetic language and understated Southern dialect, as well as Mantella's clear-eyed observations of race relations as human relations, a cast of unforgettable characters, an in-depth exploration of the ties that bind, and its creative perspective. My Sweet Vidalia is a rare, wonderful, and complex look at hope, strength, the unparalleled power of unconditional love, and a young mother's refusal to give up.

My Review:

I finished this book in a rush, because the ending just wouldn’t let me go, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. And I’m still thinking. And feeling.

This story should be depressing, and it sort of is. But it isn’t written that way. It’s written in the tone of a surprising kind of joy. Possibly because of that ending.

It’s also more than a bit out of the ordinary, mostly because of the narrator.

My Sweet Vidalia is told in the first-person singular, about the life of Vidalia Lee Kandal. The narrator telling the story is the spirit of her first, miscarried child. And Cieli Mae’s otherworldly perspective makes for a surprising and fascinating point of view.

Vidalia Lee, or Vida Lee, leads a life that would make any woman in the 21st century shudder. When the story begins in 1955 in rural Georgia, we are witnesses to Vida Lee’s shotgun marriage to Jamerson Booth (JB) Jackson. And it is obvious even at the wedding that one of Vida Lee’s parents should have fired the shotgun at JB instead of forcing him to marry Vida Lee.

Vida Lee is marrying JB because he seduced her and got her pregnant. And even though it takes two to tango, 17-year-old Vida Lee really didn’t know any better. And 25-year-old JB Jackson not only knew much better, but deliberately set out to befriend and seduce young Vida Lee to keep her out of school and possibly keep her from making a better life for herself.

His sin is the deliberate act of grooming her to be abused, and then beating and abusing her for the next ten years. JB has absolutely no redeeming qualities except his absence. And Cieli Mae is all too aware of it. She is merely the first of several children that JB beat Vida Lee into miscarrying.

But it’s 1955 in the rural South, and no one can stand up for Vida Lee if she isn’t willing to stand up for herself. (And possibly not even then) She’s too beaten down and too scared to stand up for herself after her parents cut her off the day of her wedding. She’s all alone except for Cieli Mae.

The support that gathers around her is always somewhat covert. The local doctor treats her injuries and gives her leftovers from his practice, his office and his house. It’s clear that he is making up for some sin or another, but we don’t find out what it was until the very end.

People in town provide enough charity for Vida Lee to keep the two sets of twins she manages to carry to term mostly fed and mostly clothed, while setting up situations so that she doesn’t quite have to feel guilty about taking charity. Her mother-in-law helps out as best she can, all the while making excuses for her son’s abominable behavior.

But when Vidalia Lee and Ruby Pearl Banks adopt each other, even over the strict color line in rural Georgia, Vidalia finally finds the strength within herself to fix her situation.

And her solution is every bit as unorthodox as her spirit narrator could have dreamed up.

Escape Rating B: The first three-quarters of the book detail Vida Lee’s life, and the portrait is sad and chilling. We all know that this sort of tragedy actually happened, and all too often. She’s trapped in an abusive marriage and no one could help her out. Her virtual abandonment by her own parents leaves her with nothing but the necessity of dealing with her abuser as best she can.

And she does. Vida Lee’s story is a portrait of strength and hope in extreme adversity, and it surprisingly works.

Cieli Mae is a fascinating narrator. While no one can see her except Vida Lee, she does affect the world around her in surprising ways. She is also not a child, but a person with a much broader perspective on life and the world that her background would normally give her. She knows that Vida Lee’s situation is all wrong, and that it’s possible that something could be done if she just stood up for herself, but Cieli Mae can’t make her mother listen. She can’t really offer that much advice. But she can suggest, and her suggestions sometimes carry a lot of weight.

There were times when I wondered if Cieli Mae wasn’t merely a projection of Vida Lee’s own mind, just her own inner voice made separate so that she could deal with her world. I don’t think it matters. If this is Vida Lee’s coping mechanism, she had so much to cope with that it isn’t an unreasonable response.

After all of the horrible things that happen to Vida Lee, the ending is incredibly satisfying. The reader understands completely why things work out the way that they do, and there’s definitely a sense of relief that Vida Lee has the possibility of a great life to look forwards to.

And if you’ve ever been in the situation where someone you have had less than happy experiences with has died, and you go to the funeral not to grieve but to make sure the person is really dead, you’ll love the ending.

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