The Madhatter's Guide to Chocolate
by Rhett DeVane

Rabid Press, Austin TX, 2003. ISBN 0974303909.
Reviewed by Lee Ambrose
Posted on 10/24/2005

Fiction: Literary

While this is strictly a work of fiction, the town of Chattahoochee is real. In fact, it is the town in which author Rhett Devane lived as a child. From the "about the author" insert: "Rhett DeVane is a true southerner, born and raised in the piney woods of the north Florida panhandle. Originally from Chattahoochee, Florida, she now lives in Tallahassee where she is completing a series of southern fiction novels. Rhett is owned by two cats, Sisko and Saki, and a rescued Florida Cracker Retriever named Shelly." With every ounce of her Florida background invested in the characters of this novel, DeVane has brought to life a charming group of individuals and a tale that is at once funny, sad and everything in between.

Welcome to Chattahoochee, Florida. Welcome to Hattie's world where her home town's claim to fame is the nearby mental institution. For Hattie Davis, getting out of rural northern Florida had not come soon enough. But, when she returns to her childhood home of Chatthoochee for her mother's funeral, her view of the town has changed, her view of life has changed. In fact, Hattie has changed.

As a young girl, Hattie spent many hours at her father's small-town hardware store. It was here that she first became aware of Max the Madhatter as he was called. This eccentric resident of the local mental institution paid frequent visits to the hardware store - observing the father and child...observing life outside the confines of the institution. And making frequent entries in his notebook. With childhood innocence and unconditional acceptance of Mr. Max, Hattie befriended the man who would one day be the force behind a great change in Hattie and the town of Chattahoochee.

Mr. Max looked forward to the gift of a chocolate bar from Mr. Davis on his trips to the hardware store. Mr. Max had more than a passing fancy for chocolate although it would be years before Hattie would realize the extent of his obsession and how it would impact her own adult life.

At the reading of her mother's will, not only did Hattie learn that she had inherited far more than she realized her mother had saved, but she became the owner of a tattered gray notebook. The family attorney indicated that the notebook had been in with her parents' papers and although he had no idea what the significance of the notebook was, he knew that it was meant for Hattie. On the front of the notebook, in handwritten block letters the words "TO MY FRIEND, MR. DAN DAVIS AND HIS SWEET CHILD HATTIE." It was Max the Madhatter's notebook.

Even after looking into the notebook, Hattie was not quite sure what to make of it until her childhood friend Jake reminded her of its original owner. "It's Max the Madhatter's private notebook... He was one of those patients that had town privileges back during the sixties. He used to hang out at your daddy's store... He wasn't mental, just kind of slow. You know, they used to lock 'em up when the family didn't want them and they had nowhere else to go. He'd been a patient his whole life...Some of those Florida State Hospital records had diagnoses like idiot or moron. I remember Max the Madhatter helping out around town doing odd jobs. People would pay him in chocolate. That was his passion. He used to scribble constantly in a notebook he carried around all the time. No one had any idea what he was writing. or if he could even write at all."

The notebook was filled with sketches, descriptions of the merchants from the downtown area for whom Max worked for chocolate, and lots of chocolate recipes. A treasure trove for the chocolate lover in everyone! This book is filled with excerpts from Max's notebook ... and the recipes that are sprinkled through out the pages of the book add to its charm.

Just as endearing as the chocolate recipes with names like " Aunt Piddie Longman's Best Damn Chocolate Icing" and "Sweet Chocolate Treats for the Youngin's" are the clips of writing from Max himself... proof that he was by no means an illiterate man or a man of impaired understanding of the world around him. Quite the contrary!

"Excerpt from Max the Madhatter's Notebook: July 4, 1959: 'I see the map of a person's life written on him like a see-through film. Not always, but often, for just a brief blink of time. Hidden secrets glow like the light from a dim candle - buried deep. Secrets ready to rise up and cause hurt. Or heal it.'"

With Hattie's inheritance, Jake's ideas, and the Madhatter's recipes as the spark needed to light a creative fire, Jake and Hattie become business partners and work to bring new life to the old downtown area of their childhood home.

When an unspeakable crime is carried out against Jake, Hattie's resolve becomes even stronger. Returning to Chattahoochee and establishing herself there permanently is of utmost importance. As the events unfold, Hattie learns to accept life in a small town as a challenge and a gift rolled into one. With the help of other local merchants, she and Jake become instrumental in breathing new life into the old town. In doing so, she finds a peace she never knew she was capable of experiencing.

"From the Madhatter's notebook: May 14, 1957: 'Why are so many people looking for peace? All you have to do is look inside. I guess if you have your insides right, the rest will follow.'" Apparently Max the Madhatter knew the secret all along.

This is a delightful read that, while holding its fair share of tragedy and twists of fate, is sure to leave its reader with a "feel good" attitude when the final page is read.

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