Monday, February 22, 2016

The Book Tour Stops Here: A Review of "My Sweet Vidalia" by Deborah Mantella, Served with (Healthier) Sweet Tea with Honey & Mint

Today's TLC Book Tour stop features a review of the novel, My Sweet Vidalia by Deborah Mantella. Since it's Southern fiction, my review is accompanied by a recipe for a (healthier and less sweet) version of that Southern beverage staple, Sweet Tea, inspired by my reading.  

Publisher's Blurb:

On July 4, 1955, in rural Georgia, an act of violence threatens the life of Vidalia Lee Kandal Jackson’s pre-born daughter. Despite the direst of circumstances, the spirit of the lost child refuses to leave her ill-equipped young mother’s side.

For as long as she is needed–through troubled pregnancies, through poverty, through spousal abuse and agonizing betrayals–Cieli Mae, the determined spirit child, narrates their journey. Serving as a safe place and sounding board for Vidalia’s innermost thoughts and confusions, lending a strength to her momma’s emerging voice, Cieli Mae provides her own special brand of comfort and encouragement, all the while honoring the restrictions imposed by her otherworldly status.

Vidalia finds further support in such unlikely townsfolk and relations as Doc Feldman, Gamma Gert and her Wild Women of God, and, most particularly, in Ruby Pearl Banks, the kind, courageous church lady, who has suffered her own share of heartache in their small Southern town of yesteryear’s prejudices and presumptions.

My Sweet Vidalia is wise and witty, outstanding for its use of vibrant, poetic language and understated Southern dialect, as well as Mantella’s clear-eyed observations of race relations as human relations, a cast of unforgettable characters, an in-depth exploration of the ties that bind, and its creative perspective. My Sweet Vidalia is a rare, wonderful, and complex look at hope, strength, the unparalleled power of unconditional love, and a young mother’s refusal to give up.

Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Turner (October 6, 2015)

My Review:  

Set in the Georgia in the 1955, My Sweet Vidalia has a unique and lovable narrator, the spirit child Cieli Mae, who died before she had a chance to be born to her young mother Vidalia Jackson. It is agonizing enough for any mother to lose a child, but the fact that Vidalia's husband, JB, beat her until she lost the baby makes it even worse. It's no wonder that Vidalia needs her connection to Cieli Mae and the comfort of feeling that Cieli Mae is watching over her, protecting her and the younger siblings (two sets of twin boys born after Cieli Mae) that she never got a chance to know. My Sweet Vidalia challenged me as a reader, with the harsh reality of domestic violence that permeated the book. JB is truly an awful character and just when you thought he had reached the pinnacle of evilness, he would do something even worse. There were times I cringed and times that I had to put the book down and pick up something lighter to read until I could start up again. I also got frustrated by how complacent some of the people close to Vidalia (her 'support group' if you will) were with the truly terrible things that were happening. I know that domestic violence is a complicated situation (especially given the time period and setting here)  and that you can't help someone who is not willing to take their own steps out of the situation, but the amount of time it took for Vidalia to start to stand up for herself and for others to help her was agonizing. I wanted her parents, her family doctor, the church, and even her mother-in-law to help her. Although I could sympathize with Gert, JB's mother, not wanting to believe that her son was completely evil and without redemption, she had grandchildren to protect.

I don't want to say it was all dark, there are moments of brightness, humor, kindness, and love in the story. In addition to loving Cieli Mae, I adored Misses Ruby Pearl Banks, who steps in and takes care of Vidalia and her boys despite her own pain of losing her husband, murdered by local clan members. Misses Banks faced considerable risk helping Vidalia and her children in the racially charged rural south of the 1950s and showed courage where others had not. Although I got frustrated with Vidalia, she was such a warm and caring person that I really needed to see her find a way out. The author did a wonderful job of capturing the place and vibe of the 50s and 60s rural Georgia setting through her descriptions, the dialect, and culture. She took a somewhat fanciful premise of a spirit child and made it feel real. While it is hard to call My Sweet Vidalia a completely enjoyable book due to the domestic violence, it was a well-written and memorable one.


Author Notes: A transplant to the South, Deborah Mantella has lived and taught in various cities in the Northeast and the Midwest. Now a resident of Georgia she lives outside Atlanta with her husband. Mantella is a member of the Atlanta Writers Club, the Authors Guild, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. This is her first novel.

Connect with Deborah on her website, Facebook, or Twitter.


Food Inspiration: 

Food is not plentiful for Vidalia and her family for much of the book. She makes sweet tater pies for the church which JB destroys on the day he beats her and she loses her baby. They get some handouts from Doc Feldman--powdered milk, cookies, canned goods and meats and fresh produce, as well as food dropped of from the local churches on Sundays--"baked goods from the Baptists, fried chicken from the Methodists, tuna and potato chip casseroles from the Lutherans, or the spaghetti and fried pork chop dinners brought home from the Catholic Sunday school." Vidalia eventually manages to get money away from JB and buys groceries to feed her children, and there is a light meal of Ritz crackers and Campbell's tomato soup mentioned. When Misses Ruby Pearl Banks enters the picture, there are much better dishes like biscuits with home-canned blackberry jam and churned butter, fried ham, black-eyed peas and collard greens, breads and muffins, chocolate gravy and elderberry jam, and eggs, bacon and red-eye gravy.

Sweet tea makes an appearance in almost every book set in the South and My Sweet Vidalia is no exception to the rule, so I decided to make it as my book-inspired dish. *Real* sweet tea is usually black tea with a SCARY amount of refined sugar added in while hot, then chilled and iced down. After coming off of reading and reviewing Sugar Crush, about the impact of sugar on our health making sweet tea, even a healthier version, made me cringe a bit so I lessened the amount of sweetener considerably. I also used honey in place of white sugar since I am currently not consuming added refined sugars. The result was sweet, but more refreshing than cloying and perfect for a warm day--especially with some mint and lemon added. 

Healthier Sweet Tea with Honey and Mint
By Deb, Kahakai Kitchen
(Makes 2 Quarts)

6-7 black tea bags
4 Tbsp raw honey, or to taste
4 cups boiling water
4 cups ice and/or ice water
fresh mint and lemon slices to garnish (optional)

Bring 4 cups of filtered water to a boil in a medium pan. Reduce heat, add tea bags and let simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover pan and let tea steep for another 10 minutes. Remove teabags and stir in honey until dissolved. Pour tea into a large picture and add 4 cups total of cold water and/or ice. Stir and refrigerate until cold. 

Serve in glasses with ice, garnished with fresh mint leaves and lemon slices if desired. Enjoy!

Notes/Results: Probably no real Southerner would find this tea sweet enough, but it was plenty sweet for me since I always drink my iced tea unsweetened. ;-) I like the honey flavor combined with the bit of crisp mint. (Next time I will muddle a few sprigs of mint to have even more minty flavor.) I will continue to drink gallons of unsweetened ice tea and keep the sugar down, but this makes a nice occasional treat on a warm day.

I will be sharing this book review and food pairing with Beth Fish Reads: Weekend Cooking Event, a weekly event that is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share. For more information, see the welcome post.

Note: A review copy of "My Sweet Vidalia" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours in return for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review and as always my thoughts and opinions are my own.

You can see the stops for the rest of this Book Tour and learn what other reviewers thought about the book here on the TLC Book Tour Website.



  1. Memorable seems like a perfect word for this book.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  2. I'll add the book to my wish list. And I guess I'm too much of a northerner to add sugar to my iced tea -- but that honey does sounds tempting.

  3. Deb, I"m not a big tea drinker - when I have it sI'm usually feeling poorly and I drink it hot. Cheers from Carole's Chatter!

  4. I don't drink tea, but everyone else in my family does. I know a lot of people say in the north they don't put sugar in their tea, but I grew up in Ohio and everyone I know never made tea without sugar.

  5. I am a tea drinker: hot for breakfast and iced with lunch. The only time I add any sugar is if I have a sore throat or a cold. Then I add about half a spoonful of honey and lots of lemon. It usually makes me feel better.


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