The Dollbaby author’s story of five women in the 1960s was born out of her desire to share a slice of her hometown.
In the past, Laura Lane McNeal published Lagniappe Magazine for the Junior League and owned her own marketing firm. After the storm that forever changed the Crescent City, she felt it was time to fulfill her lifelong dream. For McNeal, that meant dedicating herself to writing about the city she called home.
“After Katrina, I was starting my life over, and I wanted to do something I loved in my new life,” she says. “I’ve been researching this book since Katrina. I got so mad hearing the politicians talk about not rebuilding New Orleans.”
Those politicians, who suggested the city of New Orleans was best left to rot under the floodwaters, lit a fire in McNeal. She returned to the Big Easy after six months as an evacuee and began recording oral histories about people and traditions that were quickly fading from the streets.
“I wanted to write about the New Orleans that was,” she says. “That’s where Mr. Henry, who came and took bets, Omar the pie man and Lucy the duck lady came from. They are real stories about real people.”
Inspired by the greats of Southern literature, McNeal took her research and began writing her debut novel Dollbaby in 2011. Her vision for the book was a house in uptown New Orleans full of locked rooms with secrets. From there, she decided to write about how five different women were affected by the secrets as well as the current events of their day. Women from two families, spanning three generations, each represent a unique part of New Orleans in the 1960s.
Fanny, the matriarch of the Bell family, was named after McNeal’s own grandmother, Francis aka Fanny. While Fanny from Dollbaby shares Laura’s grandmother’s feisty personality, she clarifies they are not the same person. “Fanny is not my grandmother. She would probably role over in her grave if she thought that Fanny was her,” she says. Hard-headed, pleasantly unpredictable and a frequent guest of the local asylum, Fannie is the definition of “wild card.”
Ibby, the granddaughter of Fannie, abruptly arrives to the Crescent City toting her father’s ashes. Abandoned by her cruel mother in an unfamiliar place, Ibby struggles to fit in and understand the city she is forced to call home. Queenie, the cook who has run the household since before Fannie arrived, is set in her ways and frightened of the changes occurring in the city and country. Dollbaby, Queenie’s opinionated daughter, longs for equality and dreams of opening her own dress shop. Birdelia, Dollbaby’s daughter, befriends Ibby and exposes her to the changing city, as well as the longstanding traditions and culture of New Orleans.
In addition to pulling characters from her collection of oral histories, many of Dollbaby‘s unique character names were inspired by the obituaries in New Orleans’ newspapers. “So many people have nicknames in New Orleans,” McNeal says. “After Katrina, the paper was taken over by a new owner, and they wanted to take nicknames out of obituaries. People had a fit! How will we know who died?” Dollbaby, Birdelia, Saphronia, Clementine — they all came from obituaries.”
“’Your grandma, she been calling her Queenie ever since. Been a good thirty years now,’ Doll said.
‘Did Fannie make up your name, too?’ Ibby asked.
Doll shook her head. ‘No child. The way Mama tells it, the day I came into this world, she said I looked like a little brown baby doll, the kind you find in a king cake. From that day on, she called me her little Dollbaby.’” – Dollbaby, Chapter 11
McNeal didn’t set out to write a story about the Civil Rights Movement in New Orleans but started researching during that time period and quickly saw the significance of civil rights. Dollbaby, with its distinct Southern style and gripping historical content, is reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Help. The book covers the period of the Vietnam War, Freedom Riders and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Laura knew she couldn’t write the story without including the groundbreaking events that shaped the country.
“I remember separate windows at snowball stands and separate seats in the back of buses, but I didn’t know what it meant when I was a child,” she says.
A huge fan of historical fiction, McNeal’s main goal was to entertain and educate her readers about her hometown. “I say New Orleans is like a gumbo town,” she says. “Other towns have the right side of the tracks and the wrong side, but New Orleans has no good side of the tracks and bad side of the tracks. New Orleans is all mixed together like a checkerboard. I wanted to capture the good and the bad of New Orleans.”
McNeal is currently working on her next book, which is about another fascinating piece of Louisiana history, the Great Flood of 1927. See her at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge November 1 from 10:45-11:15 a.m. in Senate Committee Room E of the State Capitol. She will be signing copies of Dollbaby after her talk.