Although I have yet to meet Jonathan Odell in person, we have been friends for about three years, ever since we discovered that both of us were writing about Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones (click here for his views on that story). Jon’s first novel, The View From Delphi, is a great favorite of mine. His second novel, The Healing, is forthcoming from Nan A. Talese/Doubleday in February, 2012, and promises to be a blockbuster. My review of it follows.
Jonathan Odell’s second novel, The Healing, introduces readers to Gran Gran, the lonely inhabitant of an ancient, decayed mansion located on a former slave plantation. The old black midwife and folk doctor, once a vital presence in the surrounding community of Shinetown, is now dismissed and feared as a witch by Shinetown’s younger generation.
The story opens on a damp winter day in 1933 shortly after Gran Gran finds herself in charge of a young girl, Violet, whose mother has died following an abortion attempt. Gran Gran’s efforts to comfort Violet within the confines of the rambling old mansion—where many years ago she lived as the petted slave child of her deranged mistress, Amanda Satterfield—prepares Odell’s readers for a journey back to when this household vibrated with the laughter, tears, and hustle of slaves alongside the commands, demands, and recriminations of its master and mistress. Back then, Gran Gran—or Granada, as she was called—considered the indulgences of her white mistress as proof that she was above the “swamp slaves” who worked the fields. No harm, she thought, could ever come to a dark-skinned girl allowed to wear a white girl’s ruffles and ribbons, even if that dark-skinned girl was a slave.
Granada’s assumptions are soon challenged by the arrival of Shinetown’s first true healer, the extraordinary Polly Shine. The woman for whom Shinetown will eventually be named is purchased by Master Ben Satterfield in a desperate effort to save his field slaves from the ravages of disease. Polly, a slave doctor of African and Indian ancestry, immediately sets tongues wagging among free and enslaved alike. Her healing gifts, combined with her audacious manner and appearance (highlighted by a head scarf festooned with shiny metal disks that fringe her forehead), signal that life will never again be the same for those who live at Satterfield Plantation, whether in its Great House or its most distant and dismal slave quarters.
Day-by-day in serial fashion Gran Gran tells Violet her life’s story, transporting her—and readers—back to the world of slavery. The tedium of field work, the dangers of swamp life, and the horrors of epidemic disease mark the lives of slaves, as do the personal triumphs, defeats, sorrows, and joys of daily life. Odell effectively contrasts the perspectives of the free and the unfree, showing their lives to be inextricably entangled. Like so many slaveholders, Master Ben prides himself on understanding the mental and physical characteristics of Africans that he believes have destined them for slavery; yet the institution that has brought slaveholders such great wealth has also brought Ben and Amanda Satterfield an equal measure of personal misery.
The women of Satterfield Plantation are The Healing’s centerpiece. Moving between present and past, Odell creates parallel relationships between adolescent girls and wise old women (Polly and Granada, Gran Gran and Violet) in which motherhood—its joys and its sorrows—is a recurring theme. Whether addressing the slaveholding regime of the antebellum South or the hard-bitten segregated society of twentieth-century Mississippi, Odell places women’s reverence for motherhood alongside desperate acts of abortion driven by rape, coercive sexual liaisons, and economic impoverishment.
Gran Gran’s efforts to revive Violet’s spirit by telling her the story of Shinetown forces her to confront painful events of her own life—the loss of her mother, her failure of nerve in the presence of so great a force for freedom as Polly Shine, her years as Shinetown’s doctor. Happily, Violet does not remain the passive recipient of Gran Gran’s hard-won wisdom. Readers will delight in the manner in which she becomes the vehicle for the remembrance and reconciliation of past hurts that allows Gran Gran’s own deadened spirit to soar, and which provides the book’s final message of hope.