Rebecca Wells,
Little Altars Everywhere
(Broken Moon, 1992;
HarperCollins, 1996)

Little Altars Everywhere is a companion book, written four years before Rebecca Wells' amazing 1996 bestseller Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Both books focus on the Walker family, especially the turbulent relationship between Ya-Ya extraordinare Viviane and her eldest daughter Siddalee. In this version, however, each member of the Walker family, including husband Shep and Sidda's siblings Little Shep, Lulu and Baylor, add their own glimpses of growing up in a thoroughly dysfunctional environment. Even the kind African-American maid Willetta and her farming husband Chaney add their impressions.

While Divine Secrets made the reader yearn just a little bit for the camaraderie of lifelong friends like the four Ya-Yas (despite their obvious problems bonding with anyone outside their little group), Little Altars Everywhere could easily have been called "Ya-Ya Dearest." The Viviane of this volume is difficult to like -- or even consider with sympathy, despite what we learned of her childhood and youth in the other book. We do, though, gain insight into just how the Walker children all became such maladjusted adults, especially struggling Sidda.

The characters' lives unravel in vignettes from the early to mid-1960s and the early 1990s. Each storyteller provides his or her own insights, sometimes overlapping another version remembered from a different perspective or reminiscing in conversation. It's riveting -- like seeing a train wreck. Images of children riding after the DDT truck to garner a thin powdery protection from the Louisiana mosquitoes and 4-year-old Baylor turning himself blue because he forgot to breathe during a beating remain long after the book's cover is closed.

Little Altars Everywhere doesn't quite match the exquisite flow of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but it complements it and fills in gaps, especially for several of the minor characters. I'd read about the Ya-Yas first, then take a deep breath and wander into the torments of the Walker household.

[ by Julie Bowerman ]

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