Kidnapping and cheese straws commingle in the first book in a popular series
Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind: A Novel. By Ann B. Ross. Harper 288 pp., $13.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Back in the 1990s, mainstream publishers crawled out from under a oleander bush and made an overdue discovery: A lot of people who live in small towns, go to church, and treat their neighbors kindly also like to read. And they want to see themselves reflected in novels instead of — or at least in addition to — characters who rent city apartments, go to nightclubs, and plot revenge against their bosses.
Perhaps no one did more to move publishers toward daylight than Jan Karon, who became a supernova for her series about a kindly rector in the fictional hamlet of Mitford, North Carolina, after finding only a small Christian firm willing to publish her first novel. Karon’s success helped to clear a path for writers like Ann B. Ross, who has emerged as a star in her own right for her ten books about a rich Southern Presbyterian widow who comes into her own after the death of her philandering banker husband, Wesley Lloyd.
Like Karon’s At Home in Mitford, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind takes place in a North Carolina town shielded from the harsher effects of time. But Ross’s book has more attitude – specifically, more irreverence. Karon’s Father Tim is the gentle minister a lot of us wish we had. Ross’s Pastor Ledbetter is the unctuous hypocrite we sometimes get instead.
In Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind, Miss Julia gets a surprise visit from Hazel Marie Puckett, who claims to have been Wesley Lloyd’s longtime mistress and to have brought along his 9-year-old bastard son. When Hazel Marie disappears, Miss Julia believes she must take in Little Lloyd. But certain Abbotsville busybodies don’t like having in their midst a reminder of the moral flaws of the man who owned the town bank. And when Little Lloyd is kidnapped, any number of people might have had a hand in it.
If the novel moves swiftly toward a solution to the apparent crime, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind isn’t really a mystery. It’s a comedy of Southern manners, as light as a basket of cheese straws, that turns on the acerbic wit of its protagonist and her interactions with more broadly drawn characters. Miss Julia sees right through Pastor Ledbetter’s pious ooze, her late husband’s cheating, and other two-faced behavior in Abbotsville. She doesn’t waste time worrying about whether she might have kept Wesley Lloyd from straying by trading her Red Cross shoes for Ferragamos. And for all her church-going, she avoids looking too closely at what her husband’s afterlife might hold. “He was a Presbyterian and therefore one of the elect,” she says dryly, “which makes me wonder about the election process.”
Best line: Ross writes of a Presbyterian minister who wants a piece of Miss Julia’s inheritance: “ … if he brought up Wesley Lloyd’s estate again, I decided I’d transfer my membership. Maybe to the Episcopal church, where grown men get down on their knees. Which a lot of men, including the Presbyterian kind, ought to try.”
Worst line: Miss Julia’s black maid Lillian has lines like, “You need some liquids in yo’ stomick. Jes’ lay right still while I go get you something to drink.” I didn’t mind these because Ross tries to also capture the flavor of the regional speech of her white Southern characters, so the exchange seemed fair. But some readers may disagree.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.