Book Review: The Sweetest Hallelujah

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Author: Elaine Hussey
ISBN: 9781743560471
RRP: $29.99

The Sweetest Hallelujah is the story of two courageous women from opposite sides of town who take on society at a time of extreme racial turmoil.

Set in 1955 in the South, at a time when there is much racial tension. Segregation is still very much enforced and it isn’t safe to even be seen on the wrong of town. Two courageous women take on the prejudice of the South and manage to form an unbreakable bond that alienates their closest friends, is totally forbidden and yet still manages to be a salve for the weariest of heart-broken souls.

Betty Jewel Hughes threw away the college education her mother sacrificed for to marry a silver tongued musician and go on the road, she was the hottest black jazz singer in town. Things don’t go quite the way she planned and she ends up back home in Shakerag with her mother, and raising her daughter, until cancer comes to take her away much too soon. They live on the poverty stricken side of town and Betty Jewel is desperately trying to find someone who can take care of her daughter when the time comes. She has her mother, and some fabulous friends, but an extra mouth would be quite a burden for any of them to cope with. At the end of her options and feeling desperate Betty Jewel places an ad in the local paper to find a loving mother for her child.

Cassie Malone is a wealthy white housewife from the other side of town, she works part time at the newspaper and is struggling to find direction in her life now that she has been widowed. So much of her life was tied up in her husband, the love of her life and sweetheart of the town, that she’s feeling extremely lost without him. The general advice is for her to get a hobby, find something to occupy her that is for her and will fill the gaps in her life that have been left behind. Cassie has strong opinions that aren’t always the same as those held by the rest of the town so she often finds herself having to argue to get her pieces published in the paper or the brunt of town gossip, and she takes it all in her stride.

Over a milkshake with her sister-in-law Cassie spots Betty Jewels ad and sets into motion a series of events that could change the lives of more than just the major players.

sweetest hallelujah

Cassie’s original interest in the ad is from a journalistic perspective. She wants to find the mother and write a story, hoping to help her find the mother her daughter will need. She discovers who placed the ad and heads out to get the story, only to find that there is a lot more to the story than she ever wanted to know.

The daughter in question is Billie, a stubborn and strong willed 10yr old girl who is always thinking about what she will do when she grows up, how she would make the world different if her 10 year old self made the rules. Obedience is not one of Billie’s strong points, and she knows that one day it’s going to get her in trouble but she doesn’t let it get in her way. Another of Billie’s less than desirable traits is her habit of eavesdropping at keyholes, it gets her much information she wouldn’t otherwise have but that is not always a good thing, and often what sees her get in the most trouble.

These three stubborn, strong willed and courageous women are at the centre of The Sweetest Hallelujah but they are not the only important characters to feature in the book. There are many secondary characters who affect the impact of this story. The friends of Cassie and Betty Jewel who see the difficulties and not the rewards that could come of a friendship between Cassie and Betty Jewel. There are also the characters perpetrating racial hatred, graffitti and insidious gossip.

Betty Jewel and Cassie circle one another warily in their first few meetings, both feeling defensive and out of their depth. It isn’t until Billie goes missing that they find themselves really uniting for a common cause and their search for Billie really cements their friendship.

Can one friendship make a difference in the prejudices of an entire community? That’s a question I won’t answer, perhaps you should pick up this engrossing and often heart-breaking novel and find out for yourself.

The Sweetest Hallelujah gives us an opportunity to look past the racial prejudices and see two women struggling with what life has thrown at them. Trying to heal the hurts that seem to have no solution. Betty Jewel knows that her time is coming and there’s nothing she can do about it but she refuses to give up fighting until she knows that Billie is taken care of. She would love to be secure in the knowledge that Billie will have the future she wants for her, even if that is a better future than she would have been able to offer, and she will be safe from the clutches of Betty Jewel’s estranged husband.

Cassie has lost her husband and a part of her identity, now she is most commonly viewed as Joe’s widow, and the empty nursery has become the specter of her unfulfilled dreams of motherhood. All of the community women’s groups and charity events leave her unfulfilled and even more unsatisfied than before. She needs something more worthwhile, something that will mean something – but that something could put her in danger.

Billie’s habit of eavesdropping at keyholes finds her growing up much faster than she should as she is faced with her mother’s mortality among many other secrets she was never supposed to learn.

Elaine Hussey’s characters are strong and courageous, they stand up to their society to go after what they believe is right and they find ways to discover enjoyment when the future looks bleak. A beautifully written story of hope and friendship, and the family that we are sometimes lucky enough to choose for ourselves.

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