Hazel Ishee runs away from her hardscrabble family and their destitute existence in Appalachia at fifteen, desperate to find another life. Working in a drugstore in a nearby town, she meets the industrious Floyd, a young man from a similar background. Floyd has dreams of his own, selling machinery all over the Mississippi Delta. He eventually realizes his aspirations and is able to move his family into the upper-class neighborhood he covets. Hazel quietly struggles with her feelings of inadequacy, never sure of her own worth as an individual. Even their two sons cannot make Hazel happy; her psychological damage is only alleviated by the alcohol she drinks.
Vidaís disillusionment is of another kind. A young girl from a prominent black Delta family, Vida is made pregnant, the victim of a white man, unable to shake the disgrace to her family. Vidaís father is the local black preacher, full of fine words until faced with the reality of his daughterís predicament. Eventually, the father of Vidaís baby is appointed sheriff and wants their child gone, afraid of the damage to his reputation. It is a loss that haunts Vida as her familyís fortunes fail and she and her brother are forced to work the land they once lived on.
As the years pass, Vida is driven by her need for information about the fate of her child. Even the father of her son offers some opportunity, a smell, a scant memory, anything to assuage the longing of a brokenhearted mother. Hired as a maid to the incompetent Hazel, who has also lost a son, Vidaís main duty is to give Hazel the medication that sends Hazel spinning into oblivion every morning, but keeps her sober. Their mutual need is the closest thing either has to friendship. Meanwhile, Hazelís remaining son lurks in the shadows, spying on Vida and yearning for his mother.
One constant of human nature is its unpredictability, and Jonathan Odell offers up a few twists and turns to stand the Mason-Dixon Line on its head as the civil rights movement comes to the South. Just as the movement begins, momentous changes happen for Vida and Hazel as the two enemies eye each other warily. Bone-tired and heartsick, each of them has struggled alone for so long, they barely know how to act. Black and white donít seem as important as humanity, after all, for these two women.
The author is well-intentioned, using local dialect and the colorful phrasing of the Delta, as well as the history of racial abuse and rampant discrimination that plagues the area. The View from Delphi reminds me of Tademyís Cane River, with the same kind of folksy dialogue; to my mind, there are far too many of these rambling conversations. As the authorís work matures, perhaps he will rely more on description and less on dialect. But this novel will have a following, with its strange assortment of eccentric characters and the historical import of the civil rights movement.