Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman
How does a lightly sweetened bildungsroman portray the experience of loss with conviction but without evoking the paralyzing misery of grief – which might ruin a story like Saving CeeCee Honeycutt? (After all, the title suggests CeeCee must be rescued, which can’t happen if she goes down a mental rabbit hole.) Fortunately, Beth Hoffman knows, and it’s all to the good for readers of her charming debut novel.
When 12-year-old CeeCee’s mother dies and her incapable father sets about dispatching her to the home of distant relatives in the southern United States, the girl is crushed – but in a scant few chapters, Hoffman shows us a child of uncommon steeliness, wise beyond her years but hungry for knowledge.
CeeCee has already endured her parents’ turbulent union and the gradual erosion of her mother’s sanity – not unrelated matters – and when she arrives at the home of her widowed great-aunt Tallulah ‘Tootie’ Caldwell in Savannah, Georgia, she observes more with curiosity than trepidation an iron fence resembling “countless yards of black lace” surrounding a house “the colour of lemonade.” There are no such romantic descriptions of the Ohio home CeeCee has left behind, and already she is half in love with her exotic new habitat.
Encounters only become more memorable from here, as CeeCee is introduced to new friends and neighbours: the disliked, “flap-jawed” town gossip, blowsy Violene Hobbs; glamorous, eclectic Thelma Rae Goodpepper, who bathes in an outdoor tub, keeps a peacock named Louis, espouses Buddhism, and plays Mozart, Puccini and Chopin to her plants; and Tootie’s faithful factotum Oletta.
CeeCee’s wit and intelligence echoes that of Flavia de Luce, the motherless young heroine of the Alan Bradley series, and, self-aware and humble, she is able to draw in the mother figures she needs. With such bonding comes real warmth and even the odd slapstick set-piece; few will fail to be amused by a scene involving catapulted slugs, gauzy nightwear and the literal downfall of ‘Miz Hobbs’.
But the South has a blood-soaked past, and tragedy is never far away. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is pitched by the publisher as ‘perfect for fans of The Help’, Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller, and Hoffman is prone to didactic moments, in one instance juxtaposing the story of a slave ancestor with an ugly mugging during with the assailant spits out a notorious racial epithet. From this incident CeeCee learns that “in some ways things really hadn’t changed all that much for coloured folk.”
Closer to home, it is revealed that Oletta lost a daughter CeeCee’s age to meningitis, and another great-aunt, Lucille, succumbs to an aneurysm moments after entering the story.
There is no way to marry a light, coming-of-age-of-sorts tale with a real sense of place and time, and here, the malign bigotry afflicting the 1960s South is shown more as inconvenience than mortal threat. There is no chilling moment to equal the fate of a young black man who uses a whites-only bathroom in Stockett’s story.
Nevertheless, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is so essentially good-hearted that one is inclined to forgive any flaws. Composed with skill, a sincere appreciation of character and an utter lack of cynicism, it leaves the spirits lifted.
3 / 5 stars: A sweet and deceptively sharp bildungsroman.
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