Friday, January 06, 2012

Don't Forget to Write! Letters to Missy Violet by Barbara Hathaway

Uh-oh! Mama found out I wrote to Missy Violet. Mama told Papa she was going to whup me for being so fast and nosin' in grown folks' business. I think Papa was tickled, but Mama didn't think it was funny at all!

"Viney Eleanor, didn't I tell you not to go worryin' Missy Violet with letters and things while she's down in Tallahassee? I can't believe that gal went behind my back and wrote that letter!" Mama kept saying. "I didn't know that child had such Judas ways!"

Mama never calls me Viney Eleanor unless she's real mad. She made me go out in the yard and get her a switch.

But Missy Violet told her to be sure and write, and besides, there's all these people who need Missy Violet to make them better, and with her down in Tallahassee with her sick brother, there's nobody but Viney, her "best helper girl" in Richmond County to take care of it all. First off, there's Miss Roula, who can't find the big jar of boneset medicine Missy Violet made up before she left, wondering around the graveyard and mumbling in her bathrobe. There's Viney's big brother Claude, getting more sullen and withdrawn every day, saying he's going to have to kill him some white people, and there's daddy's hurt foot that he won't stay off of, and cousin Charles who's always acting biggity and getting in trouble, and all the rest, and Viney's just got to write to Missy Violet and find out what to do for them all. After all, she spent all summer helping Missy Violet "catch babies," saving Teeny William with her special eyedropper and formula, and learning all about medicinal plants, and she is the only helper girl around.

Viney never gets that switching, as even Mama,determined to raise her right, softens as she reads Missy Violet's wise reply, and as the school year goes on, Viney needs all the wisdom she can get from her mentor. There's mean Miss Battle, her teacher, who takes over for sweet Miss Glover who loves her class but gets "snapped up" by a handsome man from out of the county. But then Missy Violet writes to tell her about her friend, Irene Battle, born a slave but dedicating her life to making sure even the sharecropper's children stay in school and get some education.

Then there's the Klan, who catch Viney and Charles spying on them in the woods, and a deformed baby whose mother doesn't have to courage to take care of her, There's Papa, laid off and threatening to move the whole family up North, and folks all around who need something, and Viney can't wait for Missy Violet to come back and take care of things. Viney needs her help to find out what she's supposed to do about it all.

"You know, the world is changing all the time and there is a place for colored
in every trade," Missy Violet writes back.

And in Barbara Hathaway's second novel about Viney, the forthcoming Letters to Missy Violet (Houghton Mifflin, 2012), we do see that world changing through the eyes of Viney Eleanor, who comes to see that there's a place for her in that world that's coming, even a nursing school for colored right up there in the North, and if she learns everything Miss Battle can teach, she knows she's going to ready to go there soon.

Told chiefly as an epistolary novel, with letters from Viney, Charles, and Mama and replies from Miss Violet, Hathaway's beautiful narrative, based on her grandmother's stories, brings her characters to life in the world of 1930's rural Georgia. There are plenty of childhood adventures--the capture by the Ku Klux Klan and unexpected release by a Klansman's little son and a scary escapade in which Charles dares the kids to climb in through the church window and take a peek inside the casket of a dead Chicago gangster brought back to be buried. There are beautiful episodes--of big, slow Ruby Dean, held back with the little kids, whom Miss Battle finds a way to teach-- and of the essay contest in which Viney gets an A and even Charles buckles down to pass, and many small victories in the life of a family and community that despite their roots in that now faraway time and place, are universal to children everywhere.

Although Letters to Missy Violet successfully stands alone, it is best read in tandem with the award-winning Missy Violet and Me as one warm and thoughtful narrative for middle readers.

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