Bett Norris’ debut novel, Miss McGhee, is also a hard one to put down. The book follows Mary McGhee, a young woman trying to find herself in the wake of World War II, through the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In her late 20s and still struggling with the past, Mary attempts to create a new life for herself by moving south to Myrtlewood, Ala., a sleepy town where it’s hard to get away with just about anything.
Mary is an outsider in nearly every sense of the word — she’s an unmarried Northerner with a funny accent. Nonetheless, she is able to find work as a secretary at the local lumber mill where she soon realizes that the job will require more than she expected. The deceased owner’s inept son, Tommie Dubose, manages the mill, and it falls on Mary to keep things afloat — quietly, of course, so as not to stir any of the millworkers who are threatened by her being a woman.
In her efforts, Mary recruits the help of Tommie’s wife, Lila. Though the women are very different, many people in the town also ostracize Lila because of her husband’s wealth and status. The two quickly form a bond that turns intimate. Lila is an intelligent woman, but her experience is limited, and it takes Mary’s influence to get her thinking about the world in a different way.
Norris tells the story of these two women falling in love and navigating the enormous restrictions surrounding their relationship against the backdrop of the town’s segregated African-American community. After years of living in secrecy and fear, Mary and Lila eventually join forces with the civil rights movement.
Miss McGhee is a tender, complicated love story filled with real hurdles and triumphs. It is an absolutely engaging read that captures the pulse of our country during a very unique moment in its history.
Heater Aimee O’Neill, Across The Page column, August11, 2008,