Dollbaby: A Novel
by Laura Lane McNeal

Published: 2014-07-03
Hardcover : 352 pages
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A Top Ten Finalist for Best Historical Novel, Goodreads Choice Awards, and a LibraryReads and Okra Pick

A big-hearted coming-of-age debut set in civil rights-era New Orleans—a novel of Southern eccentricity and secrets
When Ibby Bell’s father dies unexpectedly in the summer of 1964, ...
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A Top Ten Finalist for Best Historical Novel, Goodreads Choice Awards, and a LibraryReads and Okra Pick

A big-hearted coming-of-age debut set in civil rights-era New Orleans—a novel of Southern eccentricity and secrets
When Ibby Bell’s father dies unexpectedly in the summer of 1964, her mother unceremoniously deposits Ibby with her eccentric grandmother Fannie and throws in her father’s urn for good measure. Fannie’s New Orleans house is like no place Ibby has ever been—and Fannie, who has a tendency to end up in the local asylum—is like no one she has ever met. Fortunately, Fannie’s black cook, Queenie, and her smart-mouthed daughter, Dollbaby, take it upon themselves to initiate Ibby into the ways of the South, both its grand traditions and its darkest secrets.
For Fannie’s own family history is fraught with tragedy, hidden behind the closed rooms in her ornate Uptown mansion. It will take Ibby’s arrival to begin to unlock the mysteries there. And it will take Queenie and Dollbaby’s hard-won wisdom to show Ibby that family can sometimes be found in the least expected places.
For fans of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt and The Help, Dollbaby brings to life the charm and unrest of 1960s New Orleans through the eyes of a young girl learning to understand race for the first time.
By turns uplifting and funny, poignant and full of verve, Dollbaby is a novel readers will take to their hearts.

Editorial Review

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Chapter One

There are times you wish you could change things, take things back, pretend they never existed. This was one of those times, Ibby Bell was thinking as she stared bug-eyed out the car window. Amid the double-galleried homes and brightly painted cottages on Prytania Street, there was one house that didn’t belong.

“Ibby?” Her mother turned down the radio and began drumming her fingers on the steering wheel.

Ibby ignored her, letting her mother’s words mingle with the buzz of the air conditioning and the drone of the idling car engine as she craned her neck, trying to get a better look at the house that was stubbornly obscured by the sprawling branches of a giant oak tree and the glare of the midmorning sun. She cupped her hands over her eyes and glanced up to find a weathervane shaped like a racehorse jutting high above the tallest branches of the tree. It was flapping to and fro in the tepid air, unable to quite make the total spin around the rusted stake, giving the poor horse the appearance of being tethered there against its will.

I know that feeling, Ibby thought.

The weathervane was perched atop a long spire attached to a cupola. Ibby’s eyes traveled to the second-floor balcony, then down to the front porch, where a pair of rocking chairs and a porch swing swayed gently beside mahogany doors inlaid with glass. Surrounded on all sides by a low iron fence, the house looked like an animal that had outgrown its cage.

Her mother had described it as a Queen Anne Victorian monstrosity that should have been bulldozed years ago. Ibby now understood what she meant. The old mansion was suffering from years of neglect. A thick layer of dirt muddied the blue paint, windows were boarded up, and the front yard was so overgrown with wild azaleas and unruly boxwoods that Ibby could barely make out the brick walkway that led up to the house.

“Liberty, are you listening to me?”

It was the way Vidrine Bell said Ibby’s real name, the way she said Li-bar-tee with a clear Southern drawl that she usually went to great lengths to hide, that got her attention.

Vidrine’s face was glistening with sweat despite the air conditioning tousling her well-lacquered hair. She patted the side of her mouth with her finger, trying to salvage the orange lipstick that was seeping into the creases and filling the car with the smell of melted wax.

“Damn humidity,” Vidrine huffed. “No one should have to live in a place hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.”

The heat, her mother claimed, was one of the reasons she and Ibby’s father had moved away from New Orleans just after they married. Far, far away. To a little town called Olympia, in the state of Washington. Where no one had a Southern accent. Except, on occasion, the Bell family.

“Whatever you do, Liberty Bell, don’t forget this.” Vidrine patted the double-handled brass urn sitting like a sentinel between them on the front seat. Her mouth curled up at the edges. “Be sure and tell your grandmother it’s a present from me.”

Ibby glanced down at the urn her mother was pushing her way. A week ago that urn didn’t exist. Now she was being told to give it to a grandmother she’d never met. Ibby turned and looked at the house again. She didn’t know which was worse, the sneer on her mother’s face, or the thought of having to go into that big ugly house to meet her grandmother for the first time.

She eyed her mother, wondering why no one had bothered to mention that she even had a grandmother until a few months ago. She’d learned about it by chance, when on a clear day in March, as her father went to pay for ice cream at the school fair, a faded photograph fell from his wallet and floated wearily to the ground. Ibby picked it up and studied the stone-faced woman in the picture for a moment before her daddy took it from her.

“Who is that?” Ibby asked.

“Oh, that’s your grandmother,” he said, hastily stuffing the photo back into his wallet in a way that made it clear that he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

Later that week, while she and Vidrine were doing the dishes, Ibby got up enough gumption to ask her mother about the woman in the photograph. Vidrine glared at her with those big round eyes that looked like cue balls and threw the dish towel to the ground, slammed her fist on the counter, then launched into a lengthy tirade that made it clear that Frances Hadley Bell, otherwise known as Fannie, was the other reason they’d moved away from New Orleans right after she and Graham Bell were married.

And now here Ibby was, about to be dropped off at this woman’s house without any fanfare, and her mother acting as if it were no big deal.

“Why are you leaving me here? Can’t I come with you?” Ibby pleaded.

Her mother fell back against the seat, exasperated. “Now, Ibby, we’ve been through this a thousand times. Now that your father has passed away, I need some time away . . . to think.”

“Why won’t you tell me where you’re going?”

“That’s something you just don’t need to know,” Vidrine snapped.

“How long will you be gone?”

Vidrine frowned. “A few days. Maybe a week. It’s hard to tell. Your grandmother was kind enough to offer to keep you until I figure this whole thing out.”

Ibby’s ears perked up. Kind was not one of the words her mother had used to describe Fannie Bell.

In the background, she could hear the radio.

“This is WTIX Radio New Orleans,” the announcer said. “Up next, The Moody Blues . . .”

“Turn that up—that was one of Daddy’s favorite new bands,” Ibby said.

Vidrine turned off the radio. “Now go on. She won’t bite.” She poked Ibby in the ribs, causing the brass urn to teeter and fall over on the seat.

Ibby straightened it back up, letting her fingers linger on the cool brass handle. She swallowed hard, wondering why her mother was being so secretive. Now that her father was gone, she got the feeling that what her mother really wanted was to get away from her.

Vidrine leaned over and said in a soft voice, “Now listen, honey, I

know it’s hard to understand why God takes some people from this earth before their time. But he took your daddy in a silly bicycle accident. And now . . . well, we just have to move on somehow.”

Ibby gave her mother a sideways glance. God was a word her mother had never uttered until her father died, and being left with someone she’d never met for an indefinite period of time wasn’t exactly Ibby’s idea of moving on. But she was just shy of twelve years old, and no one had bothered to ask her opinion on the matter.

She let her hand fall from the urn. “Aren’t you at least going to come in with me?” Ibby asked.

Vidrine crossed her arms. “Liberty Alice Bell, quit your whining and get on out of this car right now. I’ve got to go.”

“But Mom—”

“Now remember what I told you. Be a good girl. Don’t give your grandmother any trouble. And one more thing.” Her mother leaned in closer and wagged a finger. “Try not to pick up any of those awful expressions like y’all or ain’t. It’s just not ladylike. Understand me?”

Before Ibby could answer, Vidrine reached over, opened the door, and pushed her out of the car. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

The novel's title is also the name of one of the characters in the book. Why do you think the author chose to name her book Dollbaby?

Ibby's arrival to Fannie's home is the catalyst for change. How does Ibby transform the household?

Ibby is warned early on not to ask Fannie about her past. Why is she given this advice?

Why does Vidrine leave Ibby with Fannie? Later, after four years, why does Vidrine suddenly come back and what does she wish to achieve from the visit?

As Ibby lives in Fannie's house, she begins to uncover its hidden truths, both physically and emotionally. What secrets does the house hide, and what do they mean to her?

In some ways Fannie is very old-fashioned, yet in other ways she seems quite progressive for someone of her era. How would you characterize her, and why?

Dollbaby wants to participate in the civil rights protests but Queenie tries to discourage her. What is the difference between their views on the issue and why do you think they differ?

As the era unfolds, what are its effects on Fannie's household? How do the political realities trickle down to the personal ones?

Fannie tells Ibby that she must be "willing to live the life that is waiting for you." What does she mean by this, and how does the advice relate to both of their lives?

Through this novel McNeal seems to suggest that family is what we make it. How does Ibby's adopted family influence the person she ultimately becomes?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

A Conversation with the author

Q: What inspired you to write DOLLBABY?

In a way, I think I’ve waited all my life to write this novel, but it finally came down to a single life-changing event that inspired me—Hurricane Katrina. When New Orleans lay in ruins after the storm, far-flung politicians questioned whether a city below sea level was worth rebuilding. As much as it angered me to hear this, it gave me a renewed determination to do two things: embark on the writing career I’d put off for so many years, and tell the story of New Orleans, the way it was and never would be again. I wrote DOLLBABY for the people of New Orleans.

Q: How did you choose to set your novel in New Orleans during the civil rights era?

My original intention was to recapture a bygone era. I chose 1964 somewhat at random, as it was the beginning of some of my earliest childhood memories. It wasn’t until I began doing research, reading newspapers from the time, that I became cognizant of the extent of social change in the air, and I felt I couldn’t tell a story about New Orleans without the civil rights movement becoming an integral part of it. In a sense, writing the novel led me on my own journey, picking up pieces of a puzzle I didn’t know were missing.

Q: Do you have memories of New Orleans during this time?

New Orleans is steeped in the tradition that any life event is cause for celebration. Where else do they bury the dead above ground, have hurricane parties, dance around with napkins on their heads, or think sucking crawfish heads is loads of fun? On the flip side, I have vague memories of side windows at restaurants, separate drinking fountains, separate bathrooms, separate schools, war protests, and love-ins at Audubon Park. I was an outsider looking in, though, too young to understand what was going on around me.

Q: DOLLBABY is told through the perspective of 11-year old Ibby, an outsider to Southern culture, and Queenie’s daughter, Dollbaby. Why was it important for you to include both of these voices in the story?

I felt dual perspectives were vital to the story. Ibby’s voice lends the eye of a young impressionable girl who is just beginning to question the world around her -- a new world she doesn’t quite understand. Dollbaby, who is older and wiser and from a completely different background, takes Ibby under her wing and explains the ways of the South. By doing so, Doll reveals her own inner turmoil as she struggles to embrace the ramifications of the changing times. In this way, their stories were able to overlap, intertwine and ultimately resolve themselves.

Q: What prompted you to write from the perspective of two young girls, rather than adults?

One basic theme that permeates the novel is discovery. From both Ibby’s perspective, as well as Dollbaby’s, the lingering question remains—who am I, and where do I fit in this world? It’s a question everyone asks of herself at some point, which is why it remains so poignant. What does life, and ultimately death, mean? I felt this discovery was more powerful coming from a young girl who had very little perspective on the world around her. It is a coming-of-age novel, certainly, but it is more than that. It also asks the question—what do I do when I get there?

Q: How much of your own life permeates this story? How have your experiences with New Orleans affected the way the Ibby encounters Southern life?

Southerners are natural storytellers, keepers of their own oral history, so when I decided to write the novel, I rounded up tales I’d heard as a child, threw them into a big pot, and added a pinch or two of my own story now and then. It became clear that I needed a character able to discover New Orleans from a fresh point of view in order to translate these peculiar customs to the reader without having to explain them outright.

Q: Did your writing process entail any research into the Civil Rights era?

I researched the novel for well over two years before I sat down to write it. The research ran the gamut from re-reading Southern classics such as To Kill A Mockingbird and Faulkner’s Light in August, books about old New Orleans and Southern folklore, as well as books by respected black authors such as Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and Toni Morrison. I read the newspapers of the time, both the regular dailies and the black weeklies. And finally, I read books including Voices in Our Blood, a literary anthology of the most important interpretations of the civil rights movement, past and present, a book I highly recommend.

Q: New Orleans truly becomes a character in DOLLBABY. What is it about this city that you hope readers will understand after reading DOLLBABY?

In New Orleans, there is a saying -- you can leave New Orleans, but the city never leaves you. The language, cuisine, architecture, the mix of cultures, the way we celebrate life, even the way we celebrate death, can’t be duplicated. New Orleans has always been a place where people from all walks of life live in close proximity, creating a shared culture, a sort of commonality that exists regardless of race or background, a diversity that goes beyond skin color or place of birth. The novel lends a glimpse of what it was like to live in such a place, one I felt needed brought back to life after Hurricane Katrina so the city could once again breathe on her own, even if she remains a faded rose who hasn’t lost her thorns.

Q: This is your debut novel. What were some of the challenges you endured, and what have you taken away from the experience?

Upon completing the rebuilding our home after the flood, which took two years, I took the opportunity to enroll in a fiction writing class at Loyola University. For several years after that, I participated in a writer’s workshop. By the time I sat down to write DOLLBABY, I already had an initial novel under my belt. That experience gave me the confidence to write DOLLBABY the way I felt it needed to be written, from both a black and white perspective. My goal was to write a classic Southern novel that would have legs. I wanted to prove that you don’t need vampires or made-up worlds to tell an enduring and engaging tale, that meaningful stories exist in everyday life. What have I taken away from the experience? You have to believe in yourself and be passionate about what you’re doing. I’ve also learned there are many more stories out there for the telling!

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from reading DOLLBABY?

I think Norman Mailer said it best: “Novels go happiest when you discover something you did not know you knew: an insight into one of your opaque characters, a metaphor that startles you… a truth… that used to elude you.” In a sense, I hope this is what readers will take away from DOLLBABY, a truth they didn’t know existed, but are happy to discover.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Dollbaby"by hockman (see profile) 03/11/16

The many layers peeled away as you progressed thru the story reminds you that you never really know the trials and tribulations faced by others and how they shape the people they become.

  "Wonderful Southern Fiction"by gsbarbie (see profile) 01/13/16

"Dollbaby" begins in 1964 introducing us to Liberty "Ibby" Bell, who has just tragically lost her father and is being left by her mother in New Orleans, a city Ibby has never visited before,... (read more)

by jouelle3 (see profile) 06/23/17

by McFarR56 (see profile) 12/05/16

by tmurphy (see profile) 04/16/16

  "Dollbaby: A Novel"by ladydiphil (see profile) 04/01/16

Fun to read book with lots of southern charm. Not only do you fall in love with the main character Libby, but also many of the others too. Although there are some sad and moving parts to this story it... (read more)

by mgoewey (see profile) 10/27/15

by LisaCB (see profile) 10/26/15

  "Dollbaby"by Silversolara (see profile) 06/24/15

The 1960's, New Orleans, a matriarch, a girl without a daddy, housekeepers, families, and secrets.

Ibby was moved to her grandmother's home after her father passed away so her mother

... (read more)

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