Miss Julia Stirs up Trouble
Ann B. Ross
Here’s a recipe for a literary car wreck: a book rooted in a regional setting and culture; an author who holds a PhD in English; and a heroine who is among the most unlikable characters I’ve ever encountered.
At times like these I really wish I’d been born with the gene that allows you to put a book down, unfinished, merely because you’ve grown disgusted with it.
I suppose, in the case of Ann B. Ross, that puts me in the minority since her character, Miss Julia, is the star of a series that contains, to date, 19 volumes. Clearly mine is a minority opinion, but I’m not willing to rethink it.
My time may be more fruitfully spent figuring out just how I wound up with such a book lying around anyway. I am reasonably certain it wasn’t purchased. And I’m pretty sure that a quick glance led me to believe that, because it contained recipes, it was another end run on Mrs. AHC’s cookbook ban. The lesson I may have to learn is: pay more attention.
Miss Julia Murdoch resides in Abbotsville, a small town somewhere in North Carolina. I can’t narrow it down much more than that given the paucity of geographic cues. Occasionally someone refers to an identifiable locale–Asheville for one–usually to reinforce distance. And it’s not near the coast. So a nice swath of the eastern US will find the setting recognizable.
That allows our heroine to focus on her town and friends. Miss Julia has a lot of friends. And a lot of strong beliefs. I gather she’s more than a bit of a busybody, with a history of sticking her nose into other people’s business. At one point she even says as much, although she casts it as seeing something wrong and setting it right. That’s just what good neighbors do.
She also has a very confused household of her own, one that has recently been renovated. Julia’s second husband, Sam, dotes on her and accommodates her whims in a way that would try many a man’s patience. Lloyd, the teen-aged result of an affair her deceased first husband had, also lives with them part of the time.
This is where the Peyton Place-like tomfoolery really gets going. Lloyd’s mother, Hazel Marie, is still around. She lives, in fact, in Sam’s old house and is now married to Mr. Pickens, a private investigator who evidently needs no first name. The Pickens have twin infant daughters. Maybe this sort of resetting the social table goes on all over the place but it’s almost beyond my comprehension. I was raised to divide the friends and move on. So you can understand my bewildered state.
While I’m establishing households, I should note that Lilian–no last name needed–is also a member of the Murdoch household. Lillian is, at a minimum, the cook, although she might also be the maid. Lillian has a counterpart over at the Pickens place: James. He also handles cooking chores, although I suspect he’s more of a handyman.
This would be the appropriate place to mention the most irritating authorial choice in the whole book. While no character is ever described in terms of race, Lillian and James speak in dialect, swallowing some letters while substituting others. So James, who is injured at the outset of this tale, has his arm wrapped in a ‘cask.’ I don’t think it’s a stretch to envision the household help as African-Americans.
Before some Miss Julia fan screams at me for making stuff up, I offer another character: Granny Wiggins. Introduced as someone who might help Hazel Marie with the babies and household work, Granny is the country-dwelling relative of Etta Mae (a friend of Miss Julia). She, too, speaks in dialect. But it’s more Granny Clampett than Hattie Mc Daniel playing Mammy. The whole thing struck me as blackface and left a sour taste in my mouth.
I suspect that all these small-town-life coincidences, where everyone knows everyone else (and their business) and employees are just like family, are meant to be familiar and comforting. But there are so many assumptions about social relationships and structure baked into the story that I had a chorus from the Frankfurt School chiding me and pointing out examples on nearly every page of the tale.
Is there even a story here? Only in the most liberal use of the word. Here’s the set up. When James falls, breaking his arm and spraining his ankle, which leaves him bedridden and in need of attention, Hazel Marie needs to take on more of the household chores. But she’s not a natural housekeeper and is overwhelmed. Miss Julia, being a helpful sort, decides she needs to step in.
So she taps all her friends about town to contribute recipes and agree to teach Hazel Marie how to cook a main dish. That’s why the book is full of recipes. I should say a word about them. They seem drawn from the labels of packaged foods.
Yes, I’m being a snob because I don’t cook that way. I will say, though, that when I came across the chicken cacciatore recipe I was inspired enough to add it to the week’s menu. (I used Marcela Hazan as my source, though.) So there was some benefit from the time I spent in Abbostsville.
There are a few sub-plots. James is running, or, more accurately, being played in, a mail-order racket. Mr. Pickens is seen around town in the company of various fast-looking women. Hazel Marie’s uncle, Brother Vern, a preacher, arrives, moves in and decides to stay in town (presumably at the Pickens house), setting up a soup kitchen.
These threads do come together, but calling them a mystery is a stretch. I’m betting the allure is the comfort of familiar characters–perhaps exaggeratedly so but not too meanly drawn–going about their business. There are a lot of cups of tea drank in this book and that’s a good metaphor for the tale itself.