Dollbaby, by Laura Lane McNeal. Viking, 2014. $26.95, 337 pages.
In her debut novel, author Laura Lane McNeal maps out the city of New Orleans in order to imagine a gripping tale of family secrets, civil rights, and Southern culture. A coming-of-age story unfolds as 11-year-old Liberty “Ibby” Bell is suddenly thrust into the oppressive heat on the front porch of her grandmother Fannie’s dilapidated Uptown mansion. Reeling from her father’s untimely death, the young girl takes comfort in Fannie’s two black maids, Queenie and her quick-witted daughter Dollbaby; it is the summer of 1964, a period rife with civil injustice and redress. The maids, who house their own struggles in the segregated era, introduce Ibby to the culture of New Orleanian cuisine and music. Many familiar local establishments make cameos throughout the tale, and while verging on camp at times, the New Orleans clichés never go so far as to distract from the sprightliness of the tale. Despite rule number one of the household, “Don’t ever go asking Miss Fannie about her past,” Ibby’s presence becomes the key to unlocking the closed mansion doors that hide Fannie’s mysterious history. McNeal offers a collection of unique views and an inventive family history while capturing the historical tensions of the 1960’s in this heartwarming work of fiction.