The Healing: A Novel by Jonathan Odell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A little girl named Violet, and her mother who is dying from a botched abortion attempt, land at the doorstep of an elderly mid-wife named Gran-Gran in 1933 Mississippi. Gran-Gran cannot save the mother's life, which leaves her in charge of Violet, a twitchy mute with a hunger for the tales of Gran-Gran's life story.
Gran-Gran's tale begins when she's snatched from her enslaved mother's arms as an infant, and raised as a sort of pet to the derranged Mistress of the house, Amanda Satterfield. As a result, Gran lives caught between the line of slave and spoiled, a child with no idea of the realities of disfavor and hardship. Her life is forever changed, however, when Polly Shine, a slave with uncanny healing abilities is brought to the plantation to tend the plague stricken swamp labourers. Polly makes it her job is to strip Gran of her lace and delusion and apprentice her to the ways of healing. It makes for a luscious, attractive story where all of the senses are catered to.
The overall theme is one of self discovery, and holding onto one's identity once it's been found. It's about the blood that connects mother to daughter and the generations before. Polly Shine's arrival onto the plantation turns everyone's notions about class and religion upside down, from Master to slave. These changes seem the stuff of magic initially but then as Gran begins her first tentative steps into womanhood, these changes also mirror a dark, bloody new future on the eve of The Civil War.
It took me a day to read this thick novel because the gorgeous imagery, great prose, and fascinating characters kept me hooked. My only real complaint with the novel was that at times, I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the magic and sultry Southern secrets. That being the case, I realized how there was a nagging feeling I'd read all of the scenes in this book in other similar tales before. In fact, every element expected of this story appears: swamps, alligators, the magical slave kitchen with the Queen Bee cook, the plantation mistress who has lapsed into madness, psychic dreams, lecherous masters, poisonous vipers, healing potions, secrets, and revenge.
That said, the novel is highly enjoyable and readable, and the plot delivers a punch when Polly Shine reveals a rather ruthless nature in taking care of her own people. I found some of her actions unforgivable no matter the circumstances that led her to it, and I think that alone is worth the read for any reading group looking for a lively debate.
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