My Sweet Vidalia

Written by Deborah Mantella
Review by Hilary Daninhirsch

It’s not often that a book is narrated by a spirit child, but it is she who provides perspective in the marvelous yet melancholy My Sweet Vidalia, which takes place in 1950s backwoods Georgia, when racial tensions were high and poverty was the norm. The narrator, Cieli Mae, is a stillborn child of Vidalia Lee and her abusive husband, JB. JB’s violent actions caused Vidalia to lose the child, but Vidalia keeps her close by, communicating with her though no one else can see nor hear her.

Vidalia has more children by JB, who disappears for days or weeks at a time, leaving her alone but not lonely, as she has the spirit of Cieli Mae by her side. Vidalia must keep the family intact and not succumb to JB’s physical and emotional mistreatment while keeping her children safe. Despite her marriage to an abuser and no help from her own family, Vidalia is portrayed as a strong and smart woman who meets every challenge with aplomb. She also forms a friendship with Ruby Pearl, a black neighbor whose husband was killed in a racially-motivated murder some years ago. Even though the friendship is risky, as Vidalia is white, it provides Vidalia a haven.

The narrative does not feel “ghostly” because Cieli Mae’s spirit is still entrenched in the world of the living. She is a keen observer of and commentator on her mother’s dire circumstances, as well as a spiritual advisor. The book is written in the Southern vernacular of the times and allows the reader to hear the words on the page. Even though some scenes are painful to read, the whole book is lovely and a testament to the human spirit. On a day when you might need a lift, My Sweet Vidalia is a fitting choice.