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 Historical Fiction Review   

 

 

The View from Delphi
By Jonathan Odell
MacAdam/Cage, 2004
Hardcover, $24.00 (510 pages)
ISBN: 1931561680
 
 
 

Jonathan Odell knows first-hand about racial segregation. He grew up in a small Mississippi town in the 1950s. And that’s part of what prompted him to write The View from Delphi, his first novel. 

Set in rural Mississippi during the late ‘50s, it is the story of two young mothers, Hazel, who is white and Vida, who is black, and how they live parallel lives despite the difference in their race. 

The story opens with Hazel Ishee, then only 15, yearning for a better life. Her family is poor and her sisters are prettier. So Hazel leaves and finds a job at a drugstore in a nearby town. It is there that she meets Floyd, a young man with a similar background but aspirations for a successful future selling machinery across the Mississippi Delta. Floyd goes to the Delta first and is quite successful. So he returns for Hazel and they start their new life together, eventually having two sons. 

Even though they live in an upper-class neighborhood and she has the family she’s always dreamed of, Hazel is still haunted by feelings of inadequacy. Her only solace comes from drinking alcohol. 

Meanwhile, Vida has problems of her own. She’s the daughter of a prominent black minister but her life is changed when she learns she’s pregnant after being raped by a white man. Her life takes another dramatic turn as the father of her child is made sheriff and is afraid the child will damage his reputation. Vida sends the child away with a relative and hopes to reclaim him at some point. But after several years go by, Vida is afraid she’s lost her child forever. 

Hazel and Vida only share two things in common as the story continues: Their loss of a son and their hate the other. Hazel’s son dies and Vida has lost contact with hers.

When Vida’s father’s church burns, her family suddenly finds itself working the land they once lived upon just to get by. 

As the years pass, Vida is hired as a maid in Hazel’s home. Vida’s main duty is to make certain that Hazel takes her daily medication that, although it puts her in a fog, it also keeps her sober. Although Hazel despises the medication almost as much as the woman giving it to her, she knows she’s no match for the strong-willed Vida. 

Hazel’s remaining son, Johnny, doesn’t like the maid and yearns for his mother. He stays in the shadows watching and waiting for a time he can change things. He decides to hide several of the family’s belongings and then accuse Vida of taking them. But before he can hatch his plan, Vida finds the missing items and puts them back where they belong. Johnny also tells his mother that Vida invites other maids to come to their home for coffee every day, figuring that will be enough to get her fired. But this plan also backfires when Hazel listens in on the conversations and learns of her own husband’s possible infidelity. She learns so much that Hazel makes a daily ritual of eavesdropping on the visiting maids. 

And what starts out as animosity becomes friendship and Vida and Hazel realize that, if they are to survive, they must depend on each other. What began as mutual distrust and dislike turns into a strong bond that neither prejudice nor stigma can break. 

Odell, who now lives in Minnesota, knows his subject matter well. He uses the colorful local dialect from the area to tell his story. 

The View from Delphi shows just how racially divided the country was during the pre-Civil Rights era. For readers younger than 40, this can be a learning experience. From the story of Rosa Parks to the fact the blacks weren’t able to vote at the time, there’s a lot of history in this novel. 

Although Odell doesn’t bring the entire story to one big happy conclusion, he tells a story of human nature as it really is. And in doing so, he makes readers realize how much alike the races really are.

 

Kendall Bell
Southern Scribe Reviews
 

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