Nothing like adding a little fantasy to history to give readers a better perspective on what really happened. In her latest novel, Redwood and Wildfire, Andrea Hairston has added one simple fantastic ingredient to real life in Jim Crow America at the beginning of the 20th Century: The hoodoo magic her characters believe in works.
The magic isn’t powerful enough to turn the tables on the violence and injustice against African Americans, but it provides healing, insight, and occasionally even haunting that leads to a rough justice. The truth of lynching, rape, and everyday financial discrimination is still very present in this book.
Perhaps the most important thing hoodoo does is make it clear that the characters in this story — and the real life people they represent — are not defined by their victimization. Nor are they helpless people incapable of solving their own problems.
And maybe the thing I like best about this book is that the path to a better life is not nose-to-the-grindstone, follow the rules, don’t-rock-the-boat, but art: Redwood Phipps makes a place for herself as a singer, a performer, a movie maker. That is, there’s joy in this book alongside ugly truth.
The book starts in a frightening time, with a group of people on the run from white vigilantes. Redwood’s mother, Garnett, a hoodoo of some renown, lets these men catch and kill her to spare the rest. But she does not disappear from the story.
Aidan Wildfire/Cooper, a half-Irish, half-Seminole man who owes a lot to Miss Garnett, tries to survive as a man considered white (though looked down upon) who also cares about his African American neighbors. He’s got some magics of his own, but they aren’t enough to keep him from being emotionally tortured by things he’s seen.
But he helps Redwood get out of Peach Grove, Georgia, and eventually joins her in Chicago. The community of people around them, both in Peach Grove and in Chicago, provide help — with a few obstacles — along the way.
Traveling bluesmen, vaudeville, and early movie-makers make the story rich and entertaining, but don’t detract from the underlying truth any more than the magic does. Not only will this book educate you about some of the uglier aspects of U.S. history, it will also leave you jumping for joy.
Here’s another thing I really like about this book: It’s completely different from Hairston’s first novel, Mindscape. I also loved Mindscape, so I’m not saying Redwood and Wildfire is good because it’s not Mindscape, but rather enjoying the fact that Hairston can jump around in genres and produce equally magical books.
Mindscape is science fiction, set in a future in which an alien set of barriers has divided Earth into three different “civilized” sections (about as civilized as the world is right now, which is to say there are some definitely uncivilized things going on). And like a lot of good SF, you have to just dive in and figure out how the world works as you go along.
I highly recommend both books. By the way, Hairston is also a professor of theatre at Smith, and no mean performer herself. If you ever hear her read, you’ll probably rush out and buy her books for that reason alone: she’ll draw you right into the story. However, for a true flavor of her performing ability, go listen to her present an academic paper. You’ll never assume that scholarship must be dull again.
Flashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.
My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.
Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.