February Read of the Month: “The Secret to Hummingbird Cake,” by Celeste Fletcher McHale

Celeste Fletcher McHale

Celeste Fletcher McHale

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

The Secret to Hummingbird Cake (Thomas Nelson, 2016) by emerging Southern author Celeste Fletcher McHale manages to do a very difficult thing: It spins a loving tale about enduring female friendships in a small town in the Deep South without engaging in stereotypes or sentimentality. Replete with the poignancy of Same Sweet Girls, the very human humor of The Devine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood, and the grace and faith of Jan Karon’s Mitford/Father Tim series, Hummingbird Cake is a compelling debut novel. Despite this comparison other Southern gems, make no mistake: Hummingbird Cake is its own book, not a recast or imitation, and it rings fresh and true.

That Hummingbird Cake is a wonderful book and authentically Southern in tone, spirit and humor was made clear when the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) named this book as one of its Winter 2016 Okra Picks. For those not familiar with this award, Okra Picks are selected by southern independent booksellers as books deserving special recognition and praise. According to the SIBA, an Okra Pick represents “the best in forthcoming southern lit, according to the people who would know.”

Published by Thomas Nelson, a world leading publisher and provider of Christian content and part of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., Hummingbird Cake is a Christian novel in much the same sense that Jan Karon’s books are. That is, there is no in-your-face proselytizing, but a consistent, gentle thread of faith runs through the storyline. Characteristic of Christian lit, Hummingbird Cake does not devolve into gratuitous violence or graphic sex, and non-Christians can easily read and delight in the book.

Set in the small Louisiana town of Bon Dieu, Hummingbird Cake is on one level the story of three women, Carrigan (the narrator), Ella Rae and Laine, and their growth and sustaining friendship. On a broader level, it chronicles a whole community. On a still wider, philosophical scale, it is a lesson in grace under pressure, resilience and faith. Despite the narrowness of the small town and rural setting (or perhaps because of it), Hummingbird Cake—like Jan Karon’s series—manages to convey huge truths about faith, suffering, forgiveness and sharing. And, like Karon, McHale writes her story in clean, clear and direct sentences that resonate with the natural voices of her locale.

Hummingbird Cake opens with the three women at age thirty, but Carrigan and Ella Rae often still act seventeen. Spirited, impetuous and sometimes rambunctious, they are involved in small-town pursuits such as a softball tournament and finding the perfect outfit for the annual Crawfish Boil. Carrigan as the narrator naturally assumes center stage, and her own personal growth is part of the solid center of the tale.

Pampered if not a bit spoiled (in a good way, mind you), Carrigan has sailed through her first three decades with relative ease. Life has not yet sucker punched her. But suddenly her once-golden marriage is in trouble as Jack, her indulgent and formerly loving husband, pulls away from her. Gone is the physical and emotional intimacy they once shared. Carrigan does not know why (nor will the readers until near the end of the story) and reacts inappropriately. Laine and Ella Rae pile in to support Carrigan—albeit with vastly differing views on the matter.

In some ways, it’s not a surprise Carrigan and Jack’s marriage is in trouble. After all, they eloped when Carrigan was barely of legal age—an elopement the very proper Laine disapproved of but which Ella Rae championed. Carrigon lied and manipulated to arrange the marriage because she had found the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with—even if he was ten years older and she was only seventeen. What did age matter? Laine and Ella Rae, naturally, went on the honeymoon.

Jack and Carrigan’s relationship is important to the story, but it takes a back seat to the camaraderie and closeness between the three women. Their friendship goes all the way back to a playground when the girls were only five. Laine is the new kid in town, and as Carrigan astutely observes, “Even at five, a small town girl in the South has learned to be suspicious of newcomers. You’re either born here, married to someone from here, or your grandparents live here. You don’t just show up out of the blue.”

Despite that suspicion, when a boy knocks Laine down on the playground, Ella Rae rallies to Laine’s defense and pops the kid with her fist. Laine, always the “good girl” in the group, hopes that Ella Rae didn’t hurt the boy. Ella Rae replies that she was trying to hurt him. Carrigan agrees with Ella Rae. As Carrigan notes: “that pretty much explains the way all three minds have worked in this posse for the past twenty-five years.”

Of the three friends, Laine is the single woman with a career as a dedicated and much-loved English teacher at the local high school. Gentle, sensitive, and devout, Laine is also “multilingual, fluent in cliché, guilt and Bible.” Carrigan views Laine as “my sister, in every sense of the word. The only thing missing was the mutual blood. So I didn’t speak to her the same way I spoke to the rest of the world.”

Ella Rae is a housewife with a happy husband, clean home, and dinner on the table—but she is also the one who “knows two speeds. Wide open and dead stop.” And sometimes she drinks too much and talks too loud, but she is never mean or mean-spirited.

Carrigan is the rebellious one who feels as though the “rules didn’t apply to me. Not in an ‘I’m better than you’ kind of way, more like in a ‘that rule is stupid’ kind of way.” She is also restless. After a brief stint working in her husband Jack’s large farming enterprise and a failed attempt at domesticity, she sometimes wonders what it might have been like to have gone to college.

Carrigan observes that, at least near the beginning of the story, “[e]verything was a joke to Ella Rae and me. …Everything we did was for entertainment purposes only.” Laine, in contrast to the other two, “wanted us to get baptized once a week, run a soup kitchen, volunteer at the local day care, and neuter dogs on the kitchen table in our spare time.”

Laine knows that even though Carrigan is thirty, she needs to grow up. “You always do this, Carrigan. …You dive off into things and never consider the consequences. …You walk right up to the edge of the cliff and teeter there until somebody yanks you back to firm ground. Don’t you know that one day you’ll go over?”

The question whether Carrigan will go over the cliff or grow up when life finally does sucker punch her forms the central tension in the story. It’s not just the troubled marriage. Her relationship with her steadying rock and conscience—Laine—is about to take a radical turn.

As the trio joins kith and kin at the annual Crawfish Boil, someone casually observes that Laine is looking particularly tired. This is the first hint that something more than friendship, small town ethos, and domestic relationships are at the heart of the story. McHale knows full well how to pace a plot, and before the readers know more about Laine’s fatigue and the dark circles under her eyes, Carrigan and Jack rediscover what Laine and Ella Rae always knew: Jack and Carrigan are still in love. They reunite. But their bliss is short-lived and before Jack can explain why he pulled away from Carrigan, Ella Rae interrupts them with devastating news.

Laine is seriously ill with cancer. The news of Laine’s cancer frightens them all—but it is also the catalyst for Carrigan and Ella Rae to finally mature. Before Laine’s illness, their lives had been blessed and if not carefree, at least safe, active and full of love. How they will react to this new situation in some ways defines their growth and inhabits the soul of the story.

While Carrigan struggles emotionally after learning Laine is seriously ill, she also discovers she is pregnant. Though the pregnancy is unplanned, it is welcomed by all as a joyous occasion. Carrigan quips: “That night [after discovering she was pregnant] we did what Louisiana folks do best. We had a party at the drop of a hat.”

Pregnant Carrigan and Ella Rae rally around Laine, and the three women retreat to Jack’s family farm. To say more about the plot would spoil the book.

Bon Dieu Falls is actually a real place, though it is called Montgomery now. McHale captures the essence of the town in scene after charming scene, some funny, some sad. For example, when Carrigan is resting on a quilt on the ground at a softball tournament but needs to distract Jack, she jumps up and screams “snake.” The snake is imaginary, but the results aren’t. As Carrigan says, “Every man still standing rushed to our rescue. Laine put her feet up in her chair while they stomped and shook the quilt. …There was much discussion among the men about the species of snake they had successfully saved us from. Some said rattlesnake, some said cottonmouth. I thanked them profusely.”

While McHale adheres generally to the novelist’s golden rule of “show, don’t tell,” part of the strength of her writing is her straightforward narrative. In introducing the gathering local people at the Crawfish Boil, for instance, she writes:

And I knew these people, really knew them. …Just thinking about it made me smile. People could say what they wanted to about small towns, but I could call just about anybody I knew, black or white, and they would show up if I needed them. Any time of the day or night. They were my people. …You couldn’t drag me out of this town.

And, of course, the people in Bon Dieu do show up to help. Time and time again. Yet, despite all the help and love surrounding Laine’s illness and the drastic changes in Carrigan’s life, Carrigan struggles with her faith. Why would a merciful God strike a good, gentle person like Laine with cancer? The age-old question of “why must people suffer” never has had a clear or convincing answer. Yet Laine ultimately helps Carrigan to come to some understanding and rediscover her faith.

And the hummingbird cake? The story opens with Laine making a hummingbird cake and Carrigan begging her for the cake’s secret ingredient. The book closes when Carrigan learns that secret. To find out what that secret is, you’ll need to read Hummingbird Cake for yourself. You’ll be glad you did, for this gentle and loving book is well worth the investment.

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