Does anyone read Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology nowadays? It's a haunting story of the citizens of a town, told through the free verse epitaphs on the tombstones. Over two hundred citizens of the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois told the truth about their lives. Nothing reminds me of that book as much as Alice Hoffman's latest novel, The Red Garden.
Blackwell, Massachusetts was founded in 1750 when Hallie Brady, her husband, and three other families settled the Berkshire Mountain community. They wouldn't have survived that first winter if Hallie hadn't been strong enough to fish for eels with her bare hands, kill rabbits, and find milk from a bear. Hallie was considered the founder of the town, and following the shooting of a bear, no one was ever allowed to shoot bears again. The story of Hallie Brady was just one of the stories that grew over the years. John Chapman, later known as Johnny Appleseed, traveled through, planting the tree known in town as the Tree of Life. A young girl drowned in the river, and her ghost was seen, then later commemorated in a pageant in which she was known as the Apparition. In a book of entwined stories, Hoffman tells the stories that grew over two centuries in Blackwell, stories of the original settlers, and then their descendants.
Hoffman's latest book isn't a happy one, but two centuries of any town's history will have its share of tragedies. But, she picks the romances, even the tragic ones, the stories of longing, to frame Blackwell's story. In fact, when she says, "A burying ground was the true mark of the established town," she told the story of the entire community, from the love of a bear, and its death and burial, to the final burial of a dog. There are stories of many strong women who saved themselves. Over time, the women became legends, although they were whispered about in their time. Yes, there's some of Hoffman's magic realism, as shown in Hallie's first relationship with the bear, and the story of the eel woman. The Red Garden is a melancholy story, a story of love, lost more than found. Spoon River, Illinois and Blackwell, Massachusetts are two imaginary towns, with fictional people. But, in the subject matter of people's lives, the tragedies, losses, and quiet triumphs, Masters' Spoon River and Hoffman's Blackwell are linked to every community.
Alice Hoffman's website is www.AliceHoffman.com
The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman. Crown, ©2011. ISBN 9780307393876 (hardcover), 270p.
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