‘Dollbaby’ recalls racial upheaval of 1960s New Orleans

Poring over newspaper archives from July 4, 1964, she discovered an article reporting that President Lyndon Baines Johnson had signed the civil rights act into law. In the same issue was a half-page ad taken out by a list of civic and business leaders of the era, urging “peace and order” at a time that had the potential to be explosive.

“There on the list was my father’s name, Charles W. Lane III,” McNeal said.

From that point on, McNeal knew that her quest to write “Dollbaby,” a novel about a New Orleans “that doesn’t exist anymore” also became the story of how two intertwined families deal with the turbulent “Freedom Summer” and the change in race relations it heralded.

The story begins in July 1964, on the day that Liberty “Ibby” Bell, an almost 12 year old girl from the Pacific Northwest, is deposited on the steps of her eccentric grandmother’s home in Uptown New Orleans by her mother. Ibby’s father had died just a few weeks before and her mother, Vidrine, is more than ready to be rid of her. She delivers Ibby — and the urn holding her late husband’s ashes — to the house with little warning or indication of when she may return. Ibby never sees her again.

As time passes, Ibby comes to love her emotionally volatile grandmother, Frances “Fannie” Hadley Bell, as she learns more and more of her family history with the assistance of Queenie and Dollbaby Trout, domestic workers in the Bell household.

At the same time, she comes to understand the complex relationships between white and black New Orleanians of the era and the relationships that existed between black domestic workers and white families in whose homes they worked.

McNeal has said that she felt it was critically important for the story to be told in part by an outsider (Ibby) who was unfamiliar with the issues of family and race that are pervasive in New Orleans, to better delineate them. As Ibby learns, so does the reader.

“I also thought it was important to have the perspectives of three generations of the Trout family,” McNeal said. “There’s Queenie, who has been with the family for decades and knows how to support and take care of Fannie. Queenie is afraid of the civil rights demonstrations reported in the paper because she knows how dangerous they are. She’s afraid of what change is going to bring.”

“But her daughter, Dollbaby, wants to fight for change. She has to hide it from her mother when she joins in a sit-in downtown. And then there is Dollbaby’s daughter, Birdelia, who is Ibby’s age and already looks at her future in terms of the new social order. She assumes her mother’s generation is making it happen.”

Many of the stories that McNeal tells in the book were drawn from oral histories gathered in the course of her research. The first was from her father, a retired lawyer.

“As soon as I saw his name in that ad, I went to him and asked, ‘What was it like back then?’ ” she said. “Doing the research was an eye-opener for me.”

Some people have compared McNeal’s novel with Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help,” the 2009 best selling book that depicted relationships between white employers and black domestic employees in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s.

“The era is the same and some of the subject matter is the same, but that is where the similarities end,” McNeal said. “There was such an impassable dividing line between the black workers and white families in ‘The Help.’ I don’t know if Jackson was really that different from New Orleans then or if it was the author’s perspective, but my story is about love and family and the blurring of those lines.

“Here, it was not a straightforward employer-employee relationship. It was more like ‘I take care of you, you take care of me,’ and it went in both directions. We all lived together and the families’ white and black households were intertwined.”

At first, publisher Penguin Books was uncertain about the title that McNeal had chosen for the book, finding it “a little too Southern and a little tawdry,” she said.

“I tried to explain to them that even in the grocery line, you’ll hear ‘Here you go, baby,’ that it’s common to be called ‘baby’ or ‘doll’ almost anywhere. They were still pondering the title when they made a trip here,” McNeal said. “They stepped off the plane and the first thing they heard was ‘Welcome to New Orleans, baby.’ That settled it.”

R. Stephanie Bruno can be reached at rstephaniebruno@gmail.com