This is a engaging read along the lines of “The Help”. When 12-year-old Ibby’s father dies in an accident, her no-good mother, Vidrine, hauls her across the country to live with a grandmother she’s never met: the tragic, eccentric and indomitable and wonderful Fannie Bell. Fannie’s big house in New Orleans is like nothing Ibby’s seen in Olympia, Washington; Ibby is surprised especially by the two black women, Queenie and her daughter Dollbaby, who work there.
Soon, Ibby learns the Fannie Rules: Don’t ask questions, don’t unlock the doors on the second floor, and don’t talk about the past. Occasionally Fannie goes off to the mental hospital for a “rest,” a not-infrequent event.
Ibby begins private school and becomes friends with Dollbaby’s daughter Birdelia; though the same age, they live remarkably different lives in the segregated South. Dollbaby goes to lunch-counter sit-ins, her brother T-Bone goes to Vietnam, the Civil Rights Amendment is passed, and slowly, the old guard of the South gives way to hippies. The story wanders gently along: Ibby has a Sweet 16 party, an old tree falls on the house, nasty Annabelle Friedrichs accuses T-Bone of rape (this lie is easily revealed thanks to Miss Fannie’s cleverness), McNeal’s portrait of a time and place is rich. Slowly, a picture of Fannie’s past emerges, one that explains the frequent visits to the mental hospital and also her great generosity. Finally secrets are revealed—truths that will tug a tear from the hardest of hearts.