Alice Hoffman’s novels occasionally nudge the melodramatic. Her fiction can seem overpowered by fairy-tale touches.
But Hoffman’s latest work of fiction, The Red Garden, works. A collection of 14 linked narratives, it tells the story of Blackwell, deep in the Massachusetts Berkshires, from its rugged beginning in 1750 until the present.
This tale of a town and its denizens is stuffed with local lore. Occurrences that might otherwise seem overdone — an apple tree blossoming in the middle of winter, a blizzard in June, an apparition of a drowned girl who appears regularly on the banks of a river — are the stuff of legend, grown larger over 250 years of re-telling. Like all legends, these express poetic truth.
If The Red Garden isn’t tethered to the conventions of domestic realism, the characters are tied to Blackwell. Throughout the book, people are desperate to leave the place they call home. But place has a way of keeping you in place, at once limiting and enlarging. Some characters escape Blackwell, but most settle there after sampling the world beyond.
One who escapes the town’s confines is its founder, Hallie Brady, one of a long line of female characters, headstrong and strong, period.
A young Englishwoman who has married the pioneering group’s leader, Hallie has more grit and native wit than her husband or the rest of her party. When the group is stopped in its tracks by a snowstorm, they settle in an area where “there are bears in every tree.” They initially call the place Bearsville. Hallie is unafraid of bears or hardship. In England, she was exploited in every way by her milliner employer.
Compared to that degradation, surviving the frontier comes easy, especially as Hallie is undaunted by the wild. When she bolts, it is for the wilderness.
The ancestors of the founding party struggle and strive against the historical backdrop of the Civil War, the 1918 flu epidemic, the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War, as well as the scrim of their own personal lives.
Hoffman’s fiction is full of people-hungry rivers, and this book is no different. The Eel River that flows through Blackwell is a source of food — eels, trout — as well as danger.
A Civil War veteran who witnessed his brother’s death and lost a leg himself saves a suicidal war widow from drowning and rescues himself in the bargain. An early 20th century ten-year-old girl fakes her own near-drowning in the river to resurrect herself and her distressed mother and fashion a new life for them. A current-day EMT rescues his newly discovered biological son from a swarm of bees by jumping with him into the river, conjuring his dead dog and deceased father as watchful presences.
In addition to the descendants of the town’s founding families — the Bradys, the Partridges, the Starrs, the Motts — two historical figures grace the town for fleeting moments. John Chapman, the Johnny Appleseed of legend and song, plants the town’s oldest tree and first orchard and gives a widow a taste of why she should want to live. Emily Dickinson wanders through and plants a fragrant garden for a blind adventurer.
The red garden of the book’s title is red from the blood of Hallie Brady’s dead son, as well as of her beloved bear companion. Bears appear in many narratives but are far less beastly than Blackwell’s darkest human characters. Hoffman evokes the beauty and the wonder of the natural world, whether wildlife or wildflowers, as a renewing force.
In my favorite narrative, a Radcliffe student returns home in the mid-’80s to care for her dying mother. Louise is a descendant of Hallie Brady on her mother’s side, but her parents had sent her to private school in nearby Lenox.
She has inherited the Brady home, the town’s oldest: “Living in the old Brady house, Louise simultaneously had the feeling of being at home and also being in a foreign land.”
Louise finds that she enjoys the hard labor of gardening. When she discovers a bone in the old garden behind her house, she calls in a Harvard graduate student to help solve the mystery of its origin. The zealous grad student believes a major paleontological find has dropped into his lap. It takes the common sense of the son of the local police chief to put the bones together to form not a prehistoric creature, but a bear.
When a committee from Blackwell’s local museum warns Louise that “What gets found in Blackwell stays in Blackwell,” they are portending her fate. She falls in love with the handsome man who has pieced together that skeleton of the bear first buried in Hallie Brady’s back garden.
In The Red Garden Hoffman has stitched together overlapping narratives threaded with glittering leitmotifs — flights of doves, peaceful bears. The miraculous seems natural here.