Writer To Reader
Laura Lane McNeal
September 1, 2014
What it Means to Miss New Orleans
When I sat down to write Dollbaby, a novel set in New Orleans in the 1960s, I strove to portray New Orleans in its most authentic light, harking back to a bygone era that many may not have known even existed.
I often refer to New Orleans as a gumbo culture. The French settled here in the early 1700s, followed by the Spanish. The city has an African-American majority, the remaining populace a juxtaposition of the same immigrants who settled the Bronx around the 1850s—Italians, Irish, Germans and Jews. (Also the reason our accents are eerily similar!) We have a tendency to celebrate, rather than delineate, the differences in our traditions and often incorporate them into our own. Above all, we celebrate being different.
New Orleans is a city where time passes unnoticed. It settles on you, soaks right through your skin. Becomes a part of you. Slow. Easy. Never changing. Until disaster struck in August of 2005 when Hurricane Katrina swept over the New Orleans, leaving eighty-percent of the city soaking under water for weeks, opening the door for far-flung politicians to give reasons why the city shouldn’t be rebuilt. I was left stranded eight hundred miles away, having been forced to flee in a mandatory evacuation. I couldn’t go back, even if I wanted to. Tanks guarded the city limits, not letting anyone in. We were told to get our children in school wherever we were, because no one was certain when, or if, schools would re-open. I’d never felt such a sense of loss, not so much for material things—our house, car, and possessions—but for a way of life that’d been unexpectedly yanked from beneath us.
My family and I remained away for five months, until electricity could be restored to our gutted home. We lived upstairs for more than a year while the downstairs was being renovated. Many of my friends, including my sister, never returned to the city. There was talk of discontinuing mail delivery to the house. The few businesses open after the storm had limited hours, due to sparse resources and even sparser manpower. My children’s class size shrank to less than half of what is was before Katrina. We called this the new normal.
But what this new normal instilled in me was a deepened pride for the people of New Orleans. We were resilient in the face of adversity. We chose to celebrate life, rather than have it defeat us. One thing this disaster did not take away was that certain joie de vivre that the people of New Orleans have.
After Katrina, I had no choice but to start my life over. This time, however, I was going to do what I’d always wanted to do, and that was to become a writer. I enrolled in classes at Loyola University to learn the craft of writing fiction. Now, writing has become my passion.
I wrote Dollbaby as my way of preserving what might have become a lost culture. I wrote it for the people of New Orleans, but I also wrote it for those willing to discover the city anew. Once there, they’ll be glad they came.
Order The Book | Visit Laura Lane McNeal
Pamela Dorman Books
A big-hearted coming-of-age debut set in civil rights-era New Orleans. A novel of Southern eccentricity and secrets
When Ibby Bell’s father dies unexpectedly in the summer of 1964, her mother unceremoniously deposits Ibby with her eccentric grandmother Fannie and throws in her father’s urn for good measure. Fannie’s New Orleans house is like no place Ibby has ever been and Fannie, who has a tendency to end up in the local asylum, is like no one she has ever met. Fortunately, Fannie’s black cook, Queenie, and her smart-mouthed daughter, Dollbaby, take it upon themselves to initiate Ibby into the ways of the South, both its grand traditions and its darkest secrets.
For Fannie’s own family history is fraught with tragedy, hidden behind the closed rooms in her ornate Uptown mansion. It will take Ibby’s arrival to begin to unlock the mysteries there. And it will take Queenie and Dollbaby’s hard-won wisdom to show Ibby that family can sometimes be found in the least expected places.
For fans of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt and The Help, Dollbaby brings to life the charm and unrest of 1960s New Orleans through the eyes of a young girl learning to understand race for the first time.
By turns uplifting and funny, poignant and full of verve, Dollbaby is a novel readers will take to their hearts.
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