Little Altars Everywhere is the first book of a (so far) two-book series. The second book is the well-known Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which was made into a motion picture.
Rebecca Wells presents her novel in a series of vignettes, each told in first person by a member of the Walker family or one of the family's employees. The technique works well here, allowing the author to utilize to advantage both the immediacy of the short story and to offer the reader the slow revelations and depth that can be revealed through the length of a good novel.
The Walker family lives on a plantation in Louisiana. The primary character of the book, and the one we first are introduced to, is Siddalee Walker, who when we first meet her in 1991 is grown up and dreaming of herself as a child again, dancing in her dream to the old rock-and-roll song Ooh My Soul by Little Richard. When she wakes up, she's laughing and thinking of her mother:
"I'm crying and I'm laughing and I still want my mother to come to me and take me in her arms."
The next chapter takes readers back to the year 1963. Siddalee is a precocious, intelligent pre-teen who is a member of the Girl Scouts. She joined the scouts primarily to earn as many merit badges and medals as she could -- to earn more than anyone ever has. Unfortunately for Siddalee, her dream is upended by the fact that her mother, Viviane Walker, and her mother's friend Necie suddenly become the troop leaders, and the first thing they do is eliminate merit badges, declaring that they make the scouts look like "military midgets." Siddalee's small ambition must be abandoned. This is told with good humor, and at first the reader is enamored with the "free spirit" of Siddalee's mom. She strikes us as a woman who knows how to have fun and who doesn't take life too seriously, maybe even the perfect mom in her own way.
Viviane and Necie are two members of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, a group of four friends who, as we slowly learn through hints and facts offered in each short-story-like chapter, are friends who have forgotten to grow up. They dream of little more than getting blitzed and going out dancing all night. Viviane, as we come to slowly realize, is not the perfect mother at all. She is selfish and self-indulgent, and the cause of much of her own children's misery.
In separate stories occurring in the 1960's, we meet "Little Shep," Siddalee's brother, named after "Big Shep," their father. We meet Baylor, the younger brother, and Lulu, Siddalee's sister, the "Princess of Gimmee". Her mother named her after Talulah Bankhead, the actress, much to her husband's displeasure.
Lulu is proud of what she considers her god-given gift. She is the "best shoplifter in the town of Thornton, bar none." She steals for the thrill of stealing, and gives most of what she takes to others, including her sister, Siddalee, the "goody-goody" one. Lulu tells us that, while Siddalee tells her she is sinning, Siddalee, sure likes the stolen gifts she's given:
"For the past year it's been me and me alone keeping her in Bonne Bell White-White which she loves-loves-loves to put under her eyebrows. I've brought her Yardly eyeliner, eyeshadow and oatmeal soap that costs a fortune."
Lulu has a point. Accepting stolen gifts while condemning the theft is hypocritical. The end of Lulu's chapter is heart-breaking, and here readers begin to realize how little true love is present in the Walker home. It is also in Lulu's chapter that we begin to learn more about the Walker children's mother, as when Lulu talks about a ring she's stolen:
"I don't even take it off to bathe. Mama would snatch it up and sell it for the money and swear it got sucked up in the vacuum cleaner. I am not dumb. My diamond dinner-ring is worth something. It might come in handy if I ever decide I might need to make a quick getaway out of this place."
A "getaway" is, as it turns out, what most of the Walker children dream of. Slowly, story by story, we come to understand that underneath the charm and devil-may-care attitude of the Walker children's mother, a ringleader of the fun-loving Ya-Ya's, is a woman who, while she has her charms and good points, is also a monster of sorts, a woman who resents her captivity as a mother and so resents the children who hold her captive. In her resentment she is, unknowingly, destroying the happiness of her family and her children. She can't see that, for she is too consumed with her own desires and her own lack of happiness.
By the novel's end, we come to understand better the true sadness behind Siddalee's wish made in the first chapter. "I'm crying and I'm laughing and I still want my mother to come to me and take me in her arms." Little Altars Everywhere is a poignant, humorous, sad, heart-warming, heart-breaking novel that may very well, over time, be deemed an American classic, and a wonderful achievement by Rebecca Wells.