REVIEW: Moon-filled Novel by Rebecca Wells
The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder by Rebecca Wells (HarperCollins 2009) hardcover, large print paper, audio, Kindle
This novel is at least as extraordinary as Wells' Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (and Little Altars Everywhere). It’s not about the Ya-Yas, but about Calla Lily Ponder, who comes of age during the 1960s and ‘70s in a small fictional town in Louisiana—Louisiana, land of myth, mud, and music. And the Moon. In La Luna, Louisiana, most especially the Moon. The book begins with a prologue in the voice of the "The Moon Lady" who says:
I know the moon and the moon knows me. I am the moon and the moon is me. I am life itself. I am not who they think I am, that old white man with the long white hair whose judging eyes try to force fear into their very pores. I am the moon mother, and I hold my children on my lap, night and day, in the heat and in the shade. When they wake and when they sleep, I whisper to them: Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid.And that’s just the beginning.
After the prologue, the narration switches to Calla Lily. She has wonderful parents and lots of good friends, including two girls her age, one who is a bit of a wild child, the other who is more conventional. But, as we know, bad things happen to good people and it seems to me that because Calla Lily is surrounded by so much love, that makes the negative stuff—which includes a racial incident and death in the family—more poignant.
Calla Lily’s mother, whom she calls M’Dear, gently teaches her about the Moon. She tells Calla that in addition dipping her toes in the river when she turned one, as was traditional in La Luna, she and Calla's father also held her up in the moonlight when she was 6 months old. M’Dear then says to Calla:
"You see how beautiful She is?" M’dear always called the moon "She." "See how bright She shines! See her light on the water? Here, let me hold you while we look. Tell me, Calla, what do you see up there?"
"I see a lady."
"I do too, darling." Then M’Dear wrapped her arms around me and whispered in my ear, "She’s the Moon Lady."...
Then M’Dear touched the crown of my head. "The moon is our mother, sweet daughter of mine. Call on her when you need her. Call on her."
M’Dear runs a beauty salon, The Crowning Glory Beauty Porch, and with Calla’s father also runs a dance studio where people come to learn the fine points of Cajun and other dances, and just to generally socialize. The beauty salon too is a social focal point for the town. Perhaps not surprisingly, Calla begins to develop an interest in hair and enjoys learning about it under her mother’s tutelage. But her first real intimation of the depth of its importance to her seems to come during an incident in what was, under Louisiana laws of that time, a roller rink where only white people were allowed to skate. One afternoon, though, the white owner of the rink allows a young black boy to skate. Watching, white (olive-skinned) Lily observes
that his skin wasn’t exactly black. It was more like roast coffee with a tiny bit of evaporated milk in it....I looked at his hair. Earlier I had thought it was true black, but then I saw that it had some dark brown and maybe even some auburn in there. It was beautiful.
A few years later (in barely 2-pages-long Chapter 13), Calla describes how she responded to a history class assignment on "trends that shaped civilization" by writing about the role of hair in history beginning with the Bible, through ancient Greece, the 18th century, the 1920s, up to the present time of the novel at that point, 1970. Her teacher tells her that the paper has "nothing to do with the growth of civilization or the wars that made it possible...." Calla counters that "hair is part of the history of the world." When her teacher responds that hair is "just fashion," Calla asks, "Isn’t fashion part of civilization?" Her teacher admits that it is, but maintains that "it hasn’t changed history like the rise of Christianity or the Industrial Revolution or the world wars." So he gives her a C. When Calla tells her father, a World War II veteran, he supports her view, saying: "Why is war more important than regular people’s lives...? Why is war more important than things people care about in peacetime?"
Calla is called upon to continue asserting the importance of her interest in hair. When a senior in high school she is steadfast in her decision to go to beauty school in New Orleans even though her boyfriend, who is headed for Stanford, insists that she too should go to college because she has scored high on college entrance exams. After high school graduation, to earn enough money to go to a beauty school in New Orleans, Lily works as both a waitress and at the Crowning Glory. While washing an older woman's hair one day, she realizes she is also an empathic healer, an experience that moves and somewhat frightens her.
As Calla prepares to leave La Luna for New Orleans, she says she
felt the Moon Lady jump into my heart, into my suitcase. You could travel the seven seas and she’d still be with you.We then hear from The Moon Lady herself as Part II begins. Here’s a bit of what she says:
....Floating to the west, my light is a silvery white beacon tracing the undulations of the La Luna River, a tiny shimmering thread that gives herself out into the Red River. I sparkle on the waters of the Red as it makes a short run southeast to the Lower Old River, which empties into the great majestic Mississippi herself....My rays fall on the oil refineries, steam, smoke and bridges of Baton Rouge before dipping again into the inky darkness of swamp, bayou, woods, and fields....I unite my light with the shimmery glow of the city that care forgot. The river is now a black snake cutting through the sprawling, gleaming mass of diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and blinking rubies spilling all the way to the edge of the ebony vastness of Lake Ponchartrain...."Yes, the Moon Lady accompanies Calla to New Orleans where she enters L’Académie de Beauté de Crescent. We follow Calla during her time at the the beauty school, as she experiences life in New Orleans, keeps in touch with folks back home, and falls in love—and that’s all I’m going to reveal about the plot because I don’t want to spoil this wonderful book for you.
I will tell you, though, that the Moon Lady has the last words. And they’re beautiful.
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