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Novel portrays the charms of a Southern childhood

"THE CROWNING GLORY OF CALLA LILY PONDER," by Rebecca Wells, HarperCollins Publishers, 391 pages, $25.99 (f)

As a girl, Calla Lily Ponder watches her mother put her hands on people and heal them. She is not a doctor or a faith healer — she's a beautician.

Calla comes to believe that hair, a person's "crowning glory," is the thing that protects what's inside a person from what's outside. Calla is fascinated by "this line between our insides and our outsides. We have to take very special care, I thought, or people's heads could just crack open like eggshells, and everything would come spilling out."

Calla, in awe of the mother she calls M'Dear, watches her work her magic on a grief-stricken widow: M'Dear "looked down at Mrs. Gaudet's hair, and I sensed that something was traveling from Mrs. Gaudet's heart to M'Dear's. And it was happening through my mother's hands."

It's a sweet idea — that beauticians can heal the heart through the head.

Author Rebecca Wells takes us through the healing of Calla's own heart in "The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder," a coming-of-age novel set in the South.

It's the 1950s, and M'Dear runs the Crowning Glory Beauty Porch, where ladies gather for beauty, the latest news and a nice cold Coke. M'Dear and Papa also teach dance lessons at the Swing 'N Sway, and Papa plays in a Cajun band. Money is tight at the Ponder household, but love is in abundance.

The ethereal M'Dear, a bit of a budding beatnik, teaches Calla about love and kindness and tells her to call on the Moon Lady when she feels lost and alone: "The moon is our mother, sweet daughter of mine," M'Dear says. "Call on her when you need her. Call on her."

Calla counts on M'Dear and the Moon Lady to guide her through life, helping her find her own healing power, her own gift of beauty.

"The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder" is filled with traditional growing-up vignettes (swimming at the swimming hole, a first kiss with the boy next door in the barn, pals pretending to be the Supremes in front of a dressing-room mirror) and, at times, the down-home Southern charm wears a bit thin. But Wells — author of the beloved "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" — knows how to paint a picture of small-town life and the wide world beyond that pulls at the heartstrings.

"Ya-Ya" fans are likely to go gaga over "The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder."

e-mail: jwilliamson@desnews.com