Published: 1 August 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction
Betty Jewel Hughes was once the hottest black jazz singer in Memphis. But when she finds herself pregnant and alone, she gives up her dream of being a star to raise her beautiful daughter, Billie, in Shakerag, Mississippi. Now, ten years later, in 1955, Betty Jewel is dying of cancer and looking for someone to care for Billie when she's gone. With no one she can count on, Betty Jewel does the unthinkable: she takes out a want ad seeking a loving mother for her daughter.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, recently widowed Cassie Malone is an outspoken housewife insulated by her wealth and privileged white society. Working part-time at a newspaper, she is drawn to Betty Jewel through her mysterious ad. With racial tension in the South brewing, the women forge a bond as deep as it is forbidden. But neither woman could have imagined the gifts they would find in each other, and in the sweet young girl they both love with all their hearts.
When Betty Jewel realises her time is running out, she places an advert in a newspaper for a mother for her young daughter, Billie, and the advert is seen by Cassie Malone, a part-time journalist, struggling with widowhood. Intrigued by the advert, Cassie attempts to get an interview with Betty Jewel but she gets more than she bargained for when she learns her deceased husband had a one night stand with Betty Jewel which resulted in Billie.
Cassie is completely devastated by the revelation, particularly as Cassie’s own pregnancies ended in miscarriage, however time is running out for Betty Jewel and Cassie has to push her pain aside for the sake of Billie. As Cassie spends more time with Betty Jewel and her family, she begins to appreciate the courage Betty Jewel displays on a daily basis as she continues her hopeless fight against the cancer leeching her life away and makes plans for her daughter’s future.
However Cassie and Betty Jewel’s friendship is frowned upon by both the black and white communities as political unrest grows and Cassie soon finds herself targeted. As Betty Jewel’s health takes a downward turn, Cassie resolves not to let prejudice stand in the way of doing the right thing, particularly when Betty Jewel asks her to adopt Billie. If Cassie is to succeed, she is going to have to unite two communities for the sake of one little girl’s future.
While The Sweetest Hallelujah was an emotional read, there were parts of it that just didn’t ring true with me, particularly with how quickly Cassie and Betty Jewel managed to put aside their differences. While Cassie is understandably upset by the fact another woman managed to have the child she longed for, she seems to come to terms with the pain far too quickly for my liking and before you know it, Cassie and Betty Jewel are behaving like they have been friends since the cradle.
The story is told against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Era, however the implications of a white woman adopting a mixed race child are never fully explored. While Cassie does experience some problems from both the black and white communities, I never felt she was in any real danger despite the book making many references to other much more serious events happening in the South. There was plenty of scope for the political ramifications to be explored more fully and I can’t help feeling it was a missed opportunity.
As Betty Jewel’s life fades away, everything gets a bit too melodramatic as the author tries to squeeze out every drop of emotion and I did shed a tear or two, even though it was all getting a bit too sickly sweet for my taste.
Despite these misgivings, the characters in The Sweetest Hallelujah are wonderfully drawn, and I especially loved Betty Jewel’s mother who has more sense than any of them put together. The author captures the feel of the South perfectly and while I don’t usually like dialect in novels, I found myself not minding it so much here as it was easy to pick up the rhythm.