Saturday, February 5, 2011
Book Review - The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman
In general, I dislike magical realism, but I love the brand of magical realism written by Alice Hoffman. I like that fact that Hoffman isn’t a “showy” writer, that she doesn’t depend on plots that carry the reader along at breakneck speed or, despite her fondness for magical realism, gimmicks. Alice Hoffman is, instead, a restrained writer, a gentle and quiet writer, and one who leaves the stylistic pyrotechnics to others. However, she’s a masterful storyteller and a gifted author.
Hoffman’s latest book, The Red Garden, is a collection of fourteen linked short stories that tell the history of a fictional town, Blackwell, Massachusetts, deep in the Berkshires, from its founding in 1750 to the late 20th century.
Blackwell is a very small town, and so the same families keep appearing in the linked stories – the Motts, the Patridges, the Starrs, and the Jacobs. These people marry and live in the shadow of Hightop Mountain, and these same people pass down Blackwell’s folktales and legends from one generation to another.
Blackwell was first known as Bearsville due to the large population of bears dotting Hightop Mountain. The opening story, “The Bear’s House,” revolves around a plucky young woman named Hallie Brady, who, along with three other families, founded Blackwell. Hallie was an orphan from England, who began working at a hatmaker’s at the age of eleven. At seventeen, she married and joined her forty-year-old husband and three other families on an expedition to western Massachusetts. The others were discouraged by the snow, the cold, the bears, and the lack of food. (The men seem to have lacked basic hunting and survival skills.) Hallie, however, didn’t let anything deter her. As Hoffman writes:
She had come all the way from England and she didn't intend to die her first winter out, not on the western side of this high dark mountain.
Determined not to turn back, Hallie smashes the ice of a frozen river and fishes out eels for a stew, builds traps for rabbits, and milks a hibernating bear.
And Hallie loved “her” bear. Even after the town was established she often “gazed out the window, as if there was someplace she wanted to be, some other life that was more worth living.”
In fact, as the book progresses, the reader sees that almost all of the women in Blackwell long for something that’s just out of their reach. Some of these women, like Hallie, pine for the wild. Others long for a life of love, but die young and alone, instead. Some stay in town, while others venture away. All, however, seemed touched by regret. As one character says at the end of her story, “I already knew I would never get what I wanted."
It’s Hallie Brady, the “first lady” of Blackwell who introduces many of the themes and motifs that run through this collection of stories: a courageous young woman, who seems to find love only in the most surprising of places; an intense but unstable relationship between humans and the natural world in which they live; a legacy of sorrow and loss; a definite undercurrent of magic and mystery. And it’s Hallie who plants the garden of the book’s title in the rich, red soil that causes every plant that grows there to be vibrant and alive with the color red.
Although it’s women who are featured in this book (this is Alice Hoffman; woman are naturally going to be featured), the men play a part as well, and like the women, the men are subject to the magic that constantly envelops Blackwell.
Ghosts surface again and again in this book, in almost every story, and since their stories are rooted in the actual history of Blackwell, they remind the reader that stories usually outlive their readers and that the division between the “real” world and the world beyond is a very thin one.
Every story is linked to and enriched by the stories that came before it. And real, historical figures visit Blackwell. At one point, Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman wanders into Blackwell and plants the “Tree of Life,” an apple tree that will sustain all of the town, and in doing so, he saves a life. One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, stumbles into Blackwell from Mount Holyoke College, with her dog, Carlos. She only stays a few days, but when she leaves, she’s forever changed.
Other prominent characters are the characters we get to know in the pages of this dreamy, fabulist book. There’s the little girl who drowns in the Eel River, but whose ghost hovers over Blackwell and its inhabitants. “The Monster of Blackwell” revolves around Matthew James, a young man so “exceedingly ugly, so ugly he couldn’t look at himself,” a young man with a hideous deformity, a deformity so severe that he flees to the solitude of Hightop Mountain, only to fall in love with, and write poetry to, Kate Partridge, a beautiful woman in the village, the daughter of one of Blackwell’s founding fathers. We know from the outset that their romance is either going to have a happy ending or it’s going to be bittersweet, and when that ending does come, it seems as inevitable as the setting of the sun or the dawn of a new day.
The common thread running through all these stories is the red garden, of course, a garden where all the plants bloom red, where passions run high and bones lie buried, some of them in secret. Scarlet amaranth and crimson larkspur grow wild in Blackwell; many of the town’s inhabitant’s have red hair and freckles, and the mercurial temper that’s legendary with such coloring. Ava Cooper’s very best cake – the Apology Cake – is, of course, red velvet. When anyone turns on the TV at the “Jack Straw Bar and Grill” in the center of town, it’s the Red Sox who are on. And the “Tree of Life,” planted by the above mentioned Johnny Appleseed in the center of town, drops apples called “Look-No-Furthers,” a gentle reminder to all who pick the fruit that redder apples are nowhere to be found.
The strongest pieces in the book are the stories in which a strong current of magical realism is present as it is in “The Fisherman’s Wife," a story about a strange woman, with black hair so long she’d step on it if she didn’t keep it pinned up. The wife of a fisherman who’s caught more than one million eels, this odd woman goes door-to-door in Blackwell until something very extraordinary happens, but something that in Blackwell, barely causes the inhabitants to bat an eyelash.
Just as in a novel, there is a narrative arc in The Red Garden, but it’s so subtly and gently built, so feather-light, that a casual reader could easily miss it. I find this “feather-lightness” to be true of almost all of Alice Hoffman’s work. If she were any other author, it would be a fault, however her writing is so different from that of others, it’s so much “her own,” that what would be a fault in anyone else, is beautiful in Hoffman’s work. Her “gently layered themes” have come to be her trademark. In fact, when I think of Alice Hoffman, it’s the word, “gentle” that first comes to my mind. Her themes don’t become apparent until they are repeated over and over and over again, in subtly different ways.
As always, Hoffman conveys her extraordinary events in spare, matter-of-fact prose, but sometimes we come upon a gem that really touches us deeply. In this book we hear laughter shine “through the darkness, brighter than any light;” we see people falling in love “like a stone dropped into a river;” we watch a toddler “hurtle into each day.” It’s fresh and it’s beautiful and it’s a joy to read.
Just as she sometimes pulls real, historical personages into these stories, Hoffman has set the stories against real, historical events – the Civil War, the Depression, World War II – however, sometimes all of this seems curiously out-of-place. There’s the tale of Ben Levy, a Jewish graduate of Yale in the 1930s. Very few Jews attended Ivy League schools in the 1930s. Then there’s the fact that while Hoffman uses the Civil War as a backdrop, she never once mentions slavery. This might bother some people, but I thought it added to the enchantment of the book. Blackwell wasn’t so isolated from the rest of the world that its inhabitants didn’t know what was going on, but it was isolated enough not to be too impacted by them.
In “The Fisherman’s Wife,” a character says, “A story can still entrance people even while the world is falling apart.”
If it’s Alice Hoffman who’s telling the tale, that, of course, is true.
Recommended: Definitely to fans of Alice Hoffman and to those who like fairy tales or magical realism. Even if you’re like me, and generally like only reality-based fiction, you might find something to love in these gentle, beautiful stories and enjoy the change of pace.