Covington's 'Last Hotel': ordinary people, extraordinary times

February 18, 1996|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,sun staff

2TC "The Last Hotel for Women," by Vicki Covington. Simon & Schuster. 300 pages. $23 Birmingham, Ala., isn't a typical setting for a novel, even one set in the civil rights era, when the city was a synonym for segregation. Vicki Covington uses a fictional family to explain the complexities of her hometown, both to those who know nothing about it and people who have lived there all their lives and purposely put its embarrassing past out of their minds.

I met Ms. Covington several years ago when she started writing an occasional opinion column for the Birmingham News, where I was an editorial writer. She gained a large audience for her sensitive insight into problems such as race relations, public education, family values and religion. In "The Last Hotel for Women" she shows her understanding of people goes well beyond a detached discussion of such issues.

The central character is Dinah, who we first meet as a young girl on her father's chicken farm. Her daddy is one of those rural preachers whose fundamentalism includes the handling of serpents. The vivid description of a snake-handling service in a country church is real. The author's husband, Dennis Covington, was a National Book Award finalist this year for "Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia," in which he recounts getting the spirit and grabbing a rattler.

Dinah is an enigma of questionable ancestry. Her mother was a madam in one of the little hotel bordellos that used to be as much a part of Birmingham as its numerous churches. The city was created by Northern industrialists after the Civil War and the immigrant and black steel workers and coal miners who populated it through the first half of the 20th century were as fond of repenting as they were of sinning.

One of the regulars at this particular whorehouse was Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor, whose affection for Dinah began when she was a child and performed all kinds of services at her mother's establishment. He remains a rather intrusive "friend" through the years, even as the hotel, like Birmingham, becomes sedate if not respectable.

Dinah grows up, marries and has two children. While their new house is being built, the family moves back into the old hotel, just in time for the Freedom Rides. The demonstrators traveling through the South to integrate bus terminal waiting rooms create the setting for Ms. Covington to pose the question that people from Birmingham still get asked: "What were you doing when all that was going on?"

Ms. Covington attempts to explain both the quiet rage of African-Americans who did not participate in the Freedom Rides, which climaxed in a bloody confrontation at a Birmingham bus station, and the typically unstated embarrassment of many whites who did not agree with the racist Bull Connors who ran the city but, for too long, did nothing.

By the time Martin Luther King Jr. came to Birmingham in 1963, those two groups of people had already decided Connor must go. They changed the city's form of government. But Ms. Covington's book isn't about that, it's about ordinary people in an ordinary city living in extraordinary times.

That she chose Bull Connor to be a central character was delicious. He has become one of those superficialities of history whose role is well known, but little else. He really was a former baseball announcer. He really was arrested for cohabiting a hotel room with a woman other than his wife. Ms. Covington takes these truths and creates a Bull Connor who can be both despised and pitied for wanting to hang on to a time that was already gone.

Her superb characters will make readers want to know what happened to the people in "The Last Hotel for Women" after the Freedom Rides stopped and the marches began. Perhaps she will do a sequel.

Harold Jackson is an editorial writer at The Sun. He has been a reporter and editor for 20 years and in 1991, he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

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