The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

This is the strangest book I’ve ever read. Usually, I dislike magical realism, but I’ve read other Alice Hoffman novels and love her writing style, the way she blends magic with the mundane of everyday life. The Story Sisters is one of my favourite books and at first I was disappointed in The Red Garden, but as I read on it hooked me in, daring me to put it down. She has linked a collection of fourteen short stories to weave her way through 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 in the shadow of Hightop Mountain. The same families keep appearing in the linked stories – the Motts, the Partridges, the Starrs, and the Jacobs. These people pass down Blackwell’s folktales and legends from one generation to another.

Bears are a common thread throughout. 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 courageous young woman, Hallie Brady, who founded Blackwell along with three other families. Hallie married at seventeen and joined her forty-year-old husband and three other families on an expedition to western Massachusetts. All except Hallie were beaten down by the snow, the cold, the bears, and the lack of food. No one had basic hunting and survival skills. Hallie, however, was determined to survive. She stepped into her husband’s boots (literally and metaphorically) and tackled the wilderness .
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.

Hallie smashes the ice of a frozen river and fishes out eels for a stew, builds traps for rabbits, and milks a hibernating bear. She survived.

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.”

As Hoffman weaves her magic, you can't help noticing that most of the women in Blackwell long for something that’s out of reach. Some pine for the wild, others long for love, but die alone and unfulfilled. Some stay in Blackwell, others venture away. All seemed touched by regret. As one character sadly says: “I already knew I would never get what I wanted."

Hallie Brady is the “first lady” of Blackwell. She introduces many of the themes and motifs that run throughout this collection of stories. Hoffman presents an intense but unstable relationship between humans and the natural world in which they live - sorrow and loss, magic and mystery. Hallie plants the garden of the book’s title in the rich, red soil where every plant that grows there is vibrant and alive with the colour red. Scarlet amaranth and crimson larkspur grow wild; many of the town’s inhabitants have red hair and freckles, and the temper to go with these attributes. Then there's the bones in the garden... 

Ghosts continually surface 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 very tenuous.

Every story is linked to and enriched by the stories that came before it. And real, historical figures make an appearance in Blackwell. In one story, Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman wanders into Blackwell and plants the “Tree of Life,” an apple tree that will sustain the whole town. The poet, Emily Dickinson stumbles into Blackwell, bringing her dog, Carlos. She’s forever changed by her short stay.

There are other unforgettable characters. There’s the little girl wearing a blue dress who drowns in the Eel River, but whose ghost hovers over Blackwell and is often sighted by inhabitants. “The Monster of Blackwell” is Matthew James, a young man “exceedingly ugly, so ugly he couldn’t look at himself,” a young man with a deformity so severe that he flees to Hightop Mountain, only to fall in love with, and write lyrical poetry to, Kate Partridge, a beautiful woman in the village, the daughter of one of Blackwell’s founding fathers.

The strongest stories in the collection are those where a strong current of magical realism is present such as it is in “The Fisherman’s Wife," a story about a strange woman with long black hair. 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 this being Blackwell, barely causes the inhabitants to bat an eyelash.

As always, Hoffman conveys the extraordinary events in spare, matter-of-fact prose, but there are gems that touched me deeply. In this book we can 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.

Hoffman has set the stories against real, historical events – the Civil War, the Depression, World War II, yet sometimes these events seem out-of-place. Like the tale of Ben Levy, a Jewish graduate of Yale in the 1930s. (I can’t imagine many 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. Maybe this adds to the enchantment of the book showing Blackwell’s isolation allowed its inhabitants to know what was going on, but were not too impacted by events.
I recommend The Red Garden to fans of Alice Hoffman and to those who like fairy tales or magical realism. Even if, like me, you generally prefer reality-based fiction, you will find something to love in these bewitching, beautiful stories.

L'Aussie's Verdict: 7.5/10



Dawn Embers said...

I've never heard of the author or the book but it sounds interesting. Thanks for the great review. And Wow! I thought mine were long. Kidding. This is a well written review. Nice work.

L'Aussie said...

Geech, yep it is a bit long. I actually cut it down but there were too many interesting facets. I'll make sure to make my next one a short piece of art.

She's a great writer. I'm sure you and JJ would love her.


Micaella Lopez said...

I really like Hoffman but have not heard of this title. This may get me out of my reading slump. I have found short stories to be a big help when I just cannot finish a book.

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