This wonderful debut novel was an unexpected, but very welcome, surprise. Set in a tumultuous period of history, before and after the American Civil War, this book is different because it focuses on the female perspective of these events. Miss May Belle and her daughter Rue live at Manse Charles’s plantation in the Deep South. In the slave quarter’s the women share a hut to themselves which is seen as a great privilege. Miss May is valuable because she is a midwife and healer, as well as a conjuror of curses. If asked whether her daughter shares her abilities, Miss May tells them that her knowledge:
‘Keeps my child in his ownership and makes her worth the owning’.
Miss May’s story takes place pre-war, then we follow Rue into the post-war period where she carries on her mother’s work. Before this she was often found playing alongside Miss Varnia, Manse Charles’s daughter. Rue takes over from Miss May after her man is hanged and she can no longer partake in the joy of the mothers and their babies. Even though the plantation slaves were freed after the war, Rue is at the mercy of her incredible gift.
‘She was born to healing and stuck to it for life …a secret curse of her own making’. It really is a curse when Rue helps in the birth of a baby born with startling black eyes seen as a sign of evil.
The author delves into an unexpected result of the Civil War, some people brought up in slavery struggled with their freedom. Rue is one of these people, finding that freedom has a weight and responsibility she didn’t expect. May’s chapters are titled ‘Slaverytime’ and Rue’s are ‘Freedomtime’ to make the distinction and show the huge shift. The change was often not as positive as we imagine. It brought to mind The Long Song by Andrea Levy where the slave rebellion happens and they move into employment. However, the pay was so low and masters created rents so high that most families were worse off than before when they had free lodgings and food. It’s clear this book is drawn from a huge amount of primary source material of the period, such as diaries or autobiographies written from oral accounts. The author really captures the oral tradition, with a narration that’s quite hazy and long winded. At first I thought the haziness was meant to echo the heat filled haze in the air, but on reading the background it was meant to give me the sense of old fashioned storytelling. The author managed to take me straight to a sense of time and place. The inclusion of minister Bruh Abel also shows how a mix of people’s Christian beliefs, animistic traditions and folk practices came together to create a complex culture. The split time frame creates tension as discoveries unfold and time period informs the other. This is a masterful piece of storytelling, with complex characterisation and a time brought vividly to life.