One From The Archive: ‘Saving CeeCee Honeycutt’ by Beth Hoffman ****

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt begins in Willoughby, a rather quiet town in the state of Ohio, in the 1960s. The main protagonist of the novel, Cecelia Rose Honeycutt, is known by the affectionate nickname of CeeCee. Her story is intriguing from the outset due to its strong opening line: ‘Momma left her red satin shoes in the middle of the road.’

In her writing, Hoffman creates a feeling – almost a sense of foreboding – that things are not quite right from the outset. CeeCee’s father, Carl, is away on business at the start of the book, and her mother Camille’s behaviour becomes rather erratic. When he returns, the entire family structure changes dramatically. Carl spends his time in a fit of rage and takes little notice of CeeCee. He is essentially a cowardly character who often turns to alcohol in order to drown his sorrows. In a round-about way, Carl relies almost entirely upon CeeCee and expects her to look after Camille almost constantly. Hoffman places much focus upon Carl and Camille’s fractured relationship and how uncomfortable it makes their daughter feel from the outset.

It is clear that Camille is unstable. Her behaviour is unpredictable and she has rapid mood swings, which are terrifying for CeeCee, the only other permanent member of the household, to witness. Camille becomes more and more obsessed with a 1951 beauty pageant in which she was crowned ‘Vidalia Onion Queen’, believing that her past is her ‘real life’. The relationship between mother and daughter which Hoffman portrays is incredibly sad. It is wrought with misunderstandings and dawning understanding, along with strong personality clashes.

Lonely CeeCee, who is unpopular at school, finds a friend in her kindly elderly neighbour Gertrude Odell. Aside from Gertrude’s occasional wisdom, CeeCee does not have much guidance whatsoever from the adults around her. She is quite often left to her own devices, becoming more and more absorbed in her books as time progresses. She strives to make her own life seem less like reality and more like a fictionalised tale which she is separate from, rather than an intrinsic part of. Her seeking solace in the library is reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

As the story progresses, the reader really begins to feel for CeeCee and her plight. She yearns for normality and seems to have no choice aside from growing up incredibly quickly. Her child self has some very adult responsibilities thrust upon it. Her entire world is turned upside down when her mother is suddenly killed and she is subsequently amazed that life continues around her. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt follows the protagonist during the summer in which her life changes completely.

After her mother’s death, CeeCee’s Great-Aunt Tallulah Caldwell – known by all and sundry as ‘Aunt Tootie’ – arrives in Ohio. CeeCee is consequently sent away to live with her in a large house in Savannah, Georgia. When the action moves to Savannah, the characters become incredibly vivid and flamboyant. Aunt Tootie is an incredibly charismatic woman with a penchant for collecting vibrant hats, ‘old houses, antique clocks and Boston cream pie’. Other characters, the majority of which are single women, are Aunt Tootie’s black cook Oletta, ‘flap-jawed busybody’ Violene Hobbs and elegant Thelma Rae Goodpepper. CeeCee is welcomed with open arms by them all, and soon sees the society she is in as ‘a strange, perfumed world that… seemed to be run entirely by women’. Although life in Savannah seems like an alien concept at first, she soon fits in.

CeeCee is forced to grow up even more as the novel progresses. Shocking racial prejudices and attacks which she witnesses challenge her perceptions. She sees things which no adults would want to witness, let alone a twelve-year-old girl. CeeCee continually tries to make sense of the world itself and her personal place within it. She is inquisitive and is forever asking questions about everything going on around her. She soon embarks on a steep learning curve, as everyone around her has something to teach her or some wisdom to impart.

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is told from the first person perspective of CeeCee herself. As well as the conscious narrative stream, the novel contains many flashbacks from CeeCee’s past. Hoffman really brings the voice of her protagonist alive and brilliantly captures her growing embarrassment regarding her mother’s behaviour and trying to constantly please those around her. There are lots of childish aspects in CeeCee’s narrative at first. She sweetly stores up advice for the future from events which she witnesses in her home town – for example, ‘I made a mental note that if I ever needed help from a man I would make him a pie’.

Hoffman certainly captures American dialect within the dialogue of her characters. She does not make too much of it and gets the balance of slang words and colloquialisms just right. The dialogue is well written on the whole but some of the characters do not really stand out when they talk. Carl’s speech patterns particularly seem a little abrupt in places.

The descriptions in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt are wonderful and, even with the story told from the point of view of a young girl, Hoffman’s use of vocabulary is far from mundane. Moods of Camille’s ‘spike and plummet like a yo-yo’, and she is viewed by her daughter as a ‘crown-wearing, lipstick-smeared lunatic’. Hoffman’s portrayal of houses and scenery in the novel is decent enough, but there are perhaps not as many descriptions in the book as the reader would hope for. She sets the scene, but does not do so as fully as she could have done.

The aspect of social history in the novel is certainly interesting, particularly with regard to racial prejudices and mental illness, but much more could have been made of both. Some of the period details in the novel didn’t seem quite right. Hoffman has not written about any stigma attached to mental illness, which would have been prevalent in society at the time. In the book, mental illness is talked about as if it is an everyday occurrence which is not to be worried about, rather than something to be hushed up and swept under the carpet. The novel would also benefit from a few page breaks in order to separate the story. Weeks pass between connected paragraphs which does make the novel a little difficult to follow in places.

In conclusion, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is a wise novel which is heartwarming and amusing in equal measure. It is a relatively easy read and an enjoyable one at that. The story is not overly action-packed, but it does not need to be. An overriding theme in the novel is triumphing over adversity. The strong women in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt clash with one another at times, but eventually overcome their problems. The novel is essentially a celebration of family, friends, community and, in part, America.

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