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Both Little Altars Everywhere and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, chronicling the touching, funny, beguiling Walker family of Thornton, Louisiana, have been phenomenal critical and popular hits. Little Altars Everywhere, the first book, began life as a small-press, word-of-mouth cult classic in 1992, went on to ...
Both Little Altars Everywhere and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, chronicling the touching, funny, beguiling Walker family of Thornton, Louisiana, have been phenomenal critical and popular hits. Little Altars Everywhere, the first book, began life as a small-press, word-of-mouth cult classic in 1992, went on to win the Western States Book Award, and was included in the anthology Five Hundred Great Books by Women (Penguin, 1994). It followed Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood onto the New York Times bestseller list in 1998. The 1996 sequel, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, sparked the creation of Ya-Ya clubs around the country, and inspired Terry McMillan (San Francisco Chronicle) to exclaim, "I read the first two pages and I said, 'I haven't heard a white woman talk like this in literature before.'"
There had been no sign the theater critic would go for blood. Roberta Lydell had been so chummy, so sisterly-seeming during the interview that Sidda had felt she'd made a new girlfriend. After all, in her earlier review, Roberta had already proclaimed the production of Women on the Cusp, which Sidda had directed at Lincoln Center, to be "a miraculous event in American theater." With subtle finesse, the journalist had lulled Sidda into a cozy false sense of intimacy as she pumped her for personal information.
As Sidda lay in the bed, her cocker spaniel, Hueylene, crawled into the crook formed by her knees. For the past week, the cocker had been the only company Sidda had wanted. Not Connor McGill, her fiance. Not friends, not colleagues. Just the dog she'd named in honor of Huey Long.
She stared at the phone. Her relationship with her mother had never been smooth, but this latest episode was disastrous. For the umpteenth time that week, Sidda punched in the number of her parents' home at Pecan Grove. For the first time, she actually let it ring through.
At the sound of Vivi's hello, Sidda's stomach began to cramp.
"Mama? It's me."
Without hesitation, Vivi hung up.
Sidda punched automatic redial. Vivi picked up again, but did not speak.
"Mama, I know you're there. Please don't hang up. I'm so sorry this allhappened. I'm really really sorry. I--"
"There is nothing you can say or do to make me forgive you," Vivi said. "You are dead to me. You have killed me. Now I am killing you."
Sidda sat up in bed and tried to catch her breath.
"Mother, I did not mean for any of this to take place. The woman who interviewed me--"
"I have cut you out of my will. Do not be surprised if I sue you for libel. There are no photographs left of you on any of my walls. Do not--"
Sidda could see her mother's face, red with anger. She could see how her veins showed lavender underneath her light skin.
"Mama, please. I cannot control The New York Times. Did you read the whole thing? I said, 'My mother, Vivi Abbott Walker, is one of the most charming people in the world.'"
"'Charming wounded.' You said: 'My mother is one of the most charming wounded people in the world. And she is also the most dangerous.' I have it here in black-and-white, Siddalee."
"Did you read the part where I credited you for my creativity? Where I said, 'My creativity comes in a direct flow from my mother, like the Tabasco she used to spice up our baby bottles.' Mama, they ate it up when I talked about how you'd put on your tap shoes and dance for us while you fed us in our high chairs. They loved it."
"You lying little bitch. They loved it when you said: 'My mother comes from the old Southern school of child rearing where a belt across a child's bare skin was how you got your point across.'"
Sidda sucked in her breath...
One thing I really hate about Girl Scouts is those uniforms. They bring out my worst features-fat arms and short legs. Mama tries her best to give that drab green get-up some style, but I just get sent home with a note because the glitzy pieces of costume jewelry she pins on me are against regulations.
The only reason I joined Scouts in the first place was all because of merit badges. I wanted to earn more of those things than any other girl in Central Louisiana. I wanted my sash to be so heavy with badges that it would sag off my shoulder when 1 walked. There wouldn't be any doubt about how outstanding I was. When I walked past the mothers waiting in their station wagons outside the parish hall, I wanted them to shake their heads in amazement. I wanted them to mutter, 1 just don't know how in the world the child does it! That Siddalee Walker is such a superior Girl Scout.
I love going over and over the checklists for earning those badges in the Girl Scout Handbook. I have eight badges. More than M'lain Chauvin, who constantly tries to beat me in every single thing. 1 have got to keep my eye on that girl. She is one of my best friends, and we compete in everything from music lessons to telephone manners.
I was making real progress with my badges, and then our Girl Scout troop leader up and quit right after the Christmas holidays. She said she could no longer handle the stress of scouting. She didn't even tell us herself-just sent a note to the Girl Scout bigwigs, and they cancelled our meetings until they could find someone to take us on.
And wouldn't you know it, out of the wild blue, Mama and Necie Ogden decide to take things over and lead our troop. I could not believe my ears. Mama and Necie have been best friends since age five. Along with Caro and Teensy, they make up the "Ya-Yas." The Ya-Yas drink bourbon and branch water and go shopping together. All day long every Thursday, they play bourree, which is a kind of cutthroat Louisiana poker. When you get the right cards, you yell out "Bourree!" real loud, slam your cards down on the table, then go fix another drink. The Ya-Yas had all their kids at just about the same time, but then Necie kept going and had some more. Their idol is Tallulah Bankhead, and they call everyone "Dahling" just like she did. Their favorite singer is Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand, depending on their moods. The Ya-Yas all love to sing. Also, the Ya-Yas were briefly arrested for something they did when they were in high school, but Mama won't tell me what it was because she says I'm too young to comprehend.
At least Necie goes out and gets herself a Girl Scout leader's outfit. Mama will not let anything remotely resembling a Scout-leader uniform touch her skin. She says, Those things are manufactured by Old Hag International. She says, If they insist on keeping those hideous uniforms, then they should change the name from "Girl Scouts" to "Neuter Scouts."
Mama drew up some sketches of new designs for Girl Scout uniforms that she said were far more flattering than the old ones. But none of the Scout bigwigs would listen to her. So instead, she shows up at every meeting wearing her famous orange stretch pants and those huge monster sweaters.
The first official act of Mama and Necie's reign is to completely scrap merit badges, because Mama says they make us look like military midgets.
Whenever I gripe about being cut off just as I was about to earn my Advanced Cooking badge, Mama says, Zip it, kiddo. Don't ever admit you know a thing about cooking or it'll be used against you in later life....The Ya-Ya Boxed Set. Copyright © by Rebecca Wells. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
"Rebecca Wells's new novel is a big, blowzy romp through the rainbow eccentricities of three generations of crazy bayou debutantes trying to survive marriage, motherhood and pain, relying always on their love for each other. It is a novel of wide reach and lots of colors: fun in a breathless sort of way. Vivi is one of the best characters in any novel you'll read this summer."
Sidda is a girl again in the hot heart of Louisiana, the bayou world of Catholic saints and voodoo queens. She walks barefoot into the humid night, moonlight on her freckled shoulders. Near a huge, live oak tree on the edge of her father's cotton fields, Sidda looks up into the sky. In the crook of the crescent moon sits the Holy Lady, with strong muscles and a merciful heart. She kicks her splendid legs like the moon is her swing and the sky, her front porch. She waves down at Sidda like she has just spotted an old buddy. Sidda stands in the moonlight and lets the Blessed Mother love every hair on her six-year-old head. Tenderness flows down from the moon and up from the earth. For one fleeting, luminous moment, Sidda Walker knows there has never been a time she has not been loved.
When Siddalee and Vivi Walker, an utterly original mother-daughter team, get into a savage fight over a New York Times article that refers to Vivi as a "tap-dancing child abuser," the fall-out is felt from Louisiana to New York to Seattle. Siddalee, a successful theatre director with a huge hit on her hands, panics and postpones her upcoming wedding to her lover and friend Connor McGill. ButVivi's intrepid gang of life-long girlfriends, the Ya-Yas, sashay in and conspire to bring everyone back together.
In 1932, Vivi and the Ya-Yas were disqualified from a Shirley Temple Look-Alike Contest for unladylike behavior. Sixty years later, they're "bucking seventy," and still making waves. They persuade Vivi to send Sidda a scrapbook of girlhood momentos entitled "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."
Sidda retreats to a cabin on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, tormented by fear and uncertainty about the future, and intent on discovering a key to the tangle of anger and tenderness she feels toward her mother. But the album reveals more questions than answers, and leads Sidda to encounter the unknowable mystery of life and the legacy of imperfect love.
With passion and a rare gift of language, Rebecca Wells moves from present to past, unraveling Vivi's life, her enduring friendships with the Ya-Yas, and the reverberations on Siddalee. The collective power of the Ya-Yas, each of them totally individual and authentic, permeates this story of a tribe of Louisiana wild women impossible to tame.
Questions for Discussion
1. Wells uses three quotations as epigraphs for the novel. Why might she have chosen the first two, which address the need for spiritual growth and love? What connection, might there be between the "unknowable" that sits there "licking its chops" and our need for spiritual growth and love?
2. While Vivi was not a perfect mother, Wells does not blame her as a mother. Discuss the concept of the "good enough" mother and what acceptance of that concept means to a woman's acceptance of self.
3. One of the dominant motifs in the novel focuses on the contrast between the spirit and the law. Sister Solange and Sister Fermin take very different approaches to teaching Vivi. The Ya-Yas and Buggy have very different ideas as to what makes a statue of the Virgin Mary beautiful. The Ya-Yas and the Catholic Church have very different ideas as to where Genevieve can be buried. And, on one occasion, Vivi thinks that "Sometimes higher laws than Thornton's must be obeyed." To what higher laws is Vivi referring? Do those higher laws have any connection with the conflict that Wells seems to see between the spirit and the law?
4. Religious imagery abounds in the novel. The young Ya-Yas prick their fingers and drink each other's blood and experience a communion. Sidda baptizes herself. Why might Wells rely so heavily on religious imagery to describe everyday experiences?
5. One of the themes of the novel is the necessity of and the difficulty of personal growth. For instance, Sidda must remind herself and be reminded that she is a "grown up." Which characters in the novel experience personal growth? What obstacles must those characters overcome in order to grow? How do those characters that grow overcome the obstacles that stand in their way?
6. Is there any special significance that can be attached to the fact that Wells ends her novel with a marriage?
7. Vivi is a tangled, charismatic, and haunted character. How much does the culture Vivi grew up in influence her? Does a woman face special problems when she grows up in the South during the •40's? Look closely at Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind to see how it influenced Vivi's idea of who she was. In what way might "being a lady" pose problems for Vivi, her friends, and their daughters?
8. Why does Wells switch back and forth between the present (Sidda's current life) and the past (Vivi's youth and early motherhood)? What might Wells be suggesting about mothers and daughters?
9. "The Holy Lady" appears at the beginning and at the end of the novel. Discuss her presence in the book and what Wells might be suggesting with such inclusions.
10. What role does humor serve throughout the novel? Discuss how closely Wells weaves humor and pathos.
About the Author:
Rebecca Wells was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, where party-loving French Catholic Louisiana meets North Louisiana Baptist territory in the same parish where her family has lived since 1795. She grew up on a working plantation and was trained well in the school of Southern Ladyhood and Roman Catholicism. Early on, she began to suspect that "she might have a vocation other than marrying a lawyer or becoming the local T.V. weather girl," but the idea of being a professional writer never entered her mind. Writing, she thought, "was done only by people who lived in New York City who were very thin."
Wells has always been a storyteller and an actor. As a girl, she staged plays with her siblings, cousins, and friends, and performed in community theater productions. She learned to read early, and recalls, "It was like someone handing me the keys to another country, and I could go there any time I wanted."
The geographical territory of her writing has stayed close to Louisiana, however, and readers often assume that her work is autobiographical. Wells admits, "I grew up in a fertile world for story-telling, filled with flamboyance, flirting, futility, and fear. My work, though, is the result of my imagination dancing a kind of psycho-spiritual tango with my own history, and the final harvest is fiction, not memoir."
Starring in college productions, she began to write one-woman shows for herself, as well as short plays. After traveling the United States by train, Wells attended The Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where she studied language and consciousness with Allen Ginsberg and Choyyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and acting, movement, and voice with members of The Living Theatre, among others.
As an actress in New York City, Wells studied with Maurine Holbert, working within the Stanislavski method, as well as a depth psychology approach to acting, which seeks to integrate spirituality and performance. "I live in an actor's body," Wells says, "in which the cultivation of sense memory, active listening, and belief that the sublime can arise out of the most common character, word, or gesture is somewhat of a religion to me." While performing at regional theaters throughout the country, Wells was also active in the nuclear disarmament movement. An early member of Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament, Wells visited Seattle in 1982 to help initiate a chapter of that group. She fell in love with the Pacific Northwest, and has lived there for the past fifteen years. Her solo play, Splittin' Hairs, was developed at The Seattle Rep before going on to tour over fifty cities, including the wilds of bush Alaska. Wells is currently writing a novel based on Splittin' Hairs, which HarperCollins will publish. Wells's Gloria Duplex, "an erotic worship service for the theatre," debuted at Seattle's Empty Space Theater in 1987, with Wells in the title role as an erotic dancer who undergoes a mystical experience when she sees the face of God in the mirrored ball above the dance floor. Her acting and writing for the theatre was hailed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as "uncanny and beautiful with a flair for mystical humor," and Gloria Duplex was praised as "one of the glories of the decade." It is this rare gumbo of humor and pathos, and an ever-present awareness of the spiritual life that flows like an underground river even in the most commonplace circumstances that gives Wells's writing such energy and depth.
Little Altars Everywhere, Wells's first novel, won the Western States Book Award, becoming an underground bestseller, and was included in the anthology Five Hundred Great Books By Women (Penguin, 1994).
Posted December 10, 2002
Ya-Ya Sisterhood is one of the best mother/daughter books that has ever past under my eyes. There is nothing in this world that is strong enough to break the ties between this family. Heartbreak and tradegy may cause friction, but that same friction warmed hearts and made this special bond stronger.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 11, 2002
Not So Devine Secrets Adriane Vosmik This book is about the relationship between a mother and her daughter. Sidda, the daughter, is trying to find out why her mother is the way she is and why she has don the things she did. Her mother, Vivi, is mad at Sidda for saying bad things about her in an interview. Vivi¿s lifelong friends decide to show Sidda the scrapbook they have kept so she can see why her mom is a nut ball and what really happened during Sidda¿s childhood. I really liked this book. It didn¿t really have a hidden meaning like some books and there wasn¿t a psychologically changing book. It was very well written. It makes you laugh at things like getting arrested for skinny-dipping in the water tower and cry for an abusive drunk mother. It makes us wonder about a mother daughter relationship like Vivi and Sidda¿s. An overall good book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 18, 2000
Although this book was oftentimes depressing it speaks some blantant truths about mothers and daughters everywhere. It's a shame there was not more about the Divine Ya Yas but you still can not stop reading this. I suggest everyone read this. You will not regret it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 1, 2000
The YaYa Sisterhood is the best book I have ever read. I have bought a copy of it for almost everyone I know.It is truly an experience. I can't imagine anyone reading the book and not longing to be a YaYa. I am glad I read The YaYa Sisterhood before Little Altars Everywhere.I would suggest to others that they read the books in this order.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.