The Bad Behaviour of Belle Cantrell

Written by Loraine Despres
Review by Nancy J. Attwell

Tired of mourning her husband, Belle Cantrell does what any aspiring suffragette would do—she bobs her hair—and the town of Gentry, Louisiana, will never be the same. Before twenty-four hours have passed, her mother-in-law hires a handsome new overseer for their plantation, Rafe Berlin drives into town in his Stutz Bearcat, and drunken hooligans terrorize the preacher of the local Negro church.

The rich symbolism of Belle emerging into full womanhood as she offers the barber her virgin tresses sets the tone for this sassy but poignant novel. On the surface, The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell is a light-hearted tale of the adventures of a widow struggling with the longings that have begun to “float around the backwaters of her mind.” But at heart, this novel is a multi-layered commentary encompassing such issues as race relations, religious bigotry, women’s suffrage, and social mores. Although Belle’s insightful observations reveal the dark side of her neighbors, the villains are rounded characters (“Belle recognized in him a hungry child…beginning the next bite before swallowing the last, in case someone snatched the food off his dish”), and the heroes have their warts (“I never knew you Southerners cared so much for your darkies”). That no one in this novel is politically correct gives it greater authenticity and relevance.

This is a book that will be enjoyed in college dorms for its amusing scenes of a woman breaking free from the restraints of the 1920s, and in reading groups for its brilliant symbolism and thought-provoking themes. Beautifully written in tight prose that never flounders, The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell is entertainment with a capital “E.” Outstanding!