Monday, February 20, 2012

The Healing by Jonathan Odell — 352 pgs

When the young daughter of plantation mistress Amanda Satterfield dies of cholera, the mistress is unable to contain her grief and steals the newborn child of one of the slaves. Though the child she names Granada comes to love the fine life that she lives inside the main house, she finds herself being constantly chastised by the other house slaves for her apparent defection and devotion to her white Mistress. At the same time, Amanda’s constant attentions to the girl begin to embarrass and anger her husband, Ben. When a large group of slaves who are working in the swamp begin to come down with a a fatal and frightening illness, Ben takes things into his own hands and purchases a slave like none other, the indomitable Polly Shine, a medical healing woman who holds the key to the salvation of the entire plantation in her wizened hand. But when Polly selects Granada as her assistant, the girl is beside herself with anger and bitterness, for it means leaving the comfortable side of the Mistress and all the little fripperies that she’s grown so accustomed to. Doing her best to get herself back into the house seems to be futile, and it’s only when Granada begins to put her anger and her own strange prejudices aside that she begins to see the injustice all around her and finds her capacity to heal and understand those who come to Polly for help. As Polly and Granada begin their works of healing, they come face to face with the dangerous ideas of freedom that are sweeping through the south with alarming alacrity. Soon enough, Master Ben begins to wonder if he’s paid too high a price for the slave he knows as Polly Shine, and Granada, finding herself at war between the blackness of her skin and the secret white soul she houses inside it must also choose a path that she never thought she would encounter. Deftly moving between past and present, Jonathan Odell takes his readers on a heartbreaking and startling journey through the lives of two very different slaves and the places where their lives and hearts intersect.

This year I was honored to attend a panel at SIBA that dealt with book club reads. I had the opportunity to hear several amazing authors speak about their upcoming books, and one of those that I was most excited about was The Healing by Jonathan Odell. I sort of have a fascination with healing and midwifery, and as Odell so eloquently explained, this book was rife with those elements in addition to mostly taking place on a plantation among the slave quarters. When I got back to my room that night, I immediately searched through my books to find this one, and was greatly absorbed with it from the moment that I picked it up until I turned the last page.

This was the type of book that you can’t help but read with your mouth agape. The plights of the slaves working on the plantation, the madness and addictions of the mistress of the house and the ultimate savior that Polly Shine turns out to be kept me trapped between the pages, longing for the full story to finally reveal itself. At its core, this is the story of Granada, the young girl who doesn’t know her own heart or her own people. It was easy to become frustrated with Granada and her incessant thoughts of her own welfare, until I realized that she was, in fact, only a child. A child who had been misused and had been a pawn in a cruel game between master and mistress, and who had been turned against her own family and relations. Though at times she could be unwittingly selfish, Granada’s plight began to speak to me after awhile, and what it related was a story in which a group of people can be so subsumed and alienated that they can’t even understand their own hearts or minds. Their loyalties and thoughts can be turned from the natural places inside them and they become immune to those like them who suffer injustice and abuse. Instinct and kindness become perverted into the hatreds and prejudices of others. This wasn’t only evident in Granada but also in the others whom Polly Shine comes to serve.

While this book had a very fluid and deft plot, there was an amazing amount of character development as well. What I loved was the subtle gradients of ethics and morals in all of the characters that show up on the page. The master wasn’t totally evil, he had subtle shadings of kindness and compassion in him, just as Polly Shine’s character wasn’t as spotlessly blameless as readers would expect. Like the people we deal with day in and day out, there was a blend of selfishness and selflessness in these characters: a moral divide that felt very authentic, organic and cohesive. These variations were surprising to me as a reader because as humans we like to compartmentalize people into little boxes of good and bad, but that’s neither realistic nor appropriate, both in this story and in the lives we lead. Odell has a wonderful gift for making his characters thrillingly lifelike and multidimensional. It wasn’t hard to simultaneously love and hate a character, and to realize that though some of their actions were done for the greater good, they were indeed horrific actions.

There were a lot of jaw-dropping moments in this story and Odell got the balance of history and suspense just right in his tale of plantation slaves who were both subjugated and overwrought. The mystifying aspects of the relationship between Granada and her masters was something that I relished, but at times it repulsed me as well. When Polly arrives and takes Granada into her cabin to be her apprentice, a new and more complex story begins to emerge, for now the reader begins to see just what’s at stake for the slaves and for Granada herself. This story eases back and forth between two different time periods and effortlessly tells the tale of Granada’s early days and her later life when she has taken on a new and unexpected role among her people. Themes of belonging, identity and sacrifice are rife throughout this narrative, and nothing ends up like the reader would expect. It’s a marvelous feat of artistry that forms the backbone of this story and leaves the reader breathlessly turning pages until its unexpected conclusion.

As Odell explained at the conference, a lot of historical research went into the crafting of this book, and while the book benefits from this expert approach, there is never a feeling of things being overly orchestrated or a feeling that the story is being told by rote. I enjoyed this book immensely and think that other readers will also get a lot of enjoyment out of the dual stories of Polly and Granada. It was an excellent read for many reasons, and I think Odell did a wonderful job with it all. It’s a book to savor, and I highly recommend it.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

23 comments:

Jenny said...

This sounds fascinating. I love when an author is able to realistically portray their characters and not make them just good or bad.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I've been in a bit of a reading slump lately (just too much going on), but I do have the eGalley of this one, and have it admit it sounds like a great story. Just maybe a bit too intense for me right now.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I agree with Jenny - this sounds fascinating. I wonder why too the mistress let the slave take her "daughter" off to the slave cabins.

Brooke said...

Sounds like a must read. I read almost entirely for well developed and interesting characters so this sounds super promising!

TheBookGirl said...

I just finished this last week and thought it was amazing. Definitely a contender for top ten of 2012 (even thought it's only Feb). Polly Shine is a character for the ages -- I'll remember her for a long long time...

bermudaonion said...

I got this book at SIBA, too - I think at your urging since I missed that panel. I love books that are well researched but still read like literature. This one sounds like a winner!

Vasilly said...

I've been really curious about this book since I first heard about it a few months ago. I think I'll read it in the future. Great review.

softdrink said...

It sounds wonderful! Thanks for introducing me to yet another new book!

Audra said...

Wow -- this sounds fantastic! Intense, but fantastic. The author and title is totally new to me, so thanks for lifting this book up. Despite my love of histfict, this is an era I rarely read, so I am very excited at your rec. Thanks for the great review!

Ti said...

Wow!! This one sounds really good. The amount of tension that stealing a slave's baby would cause is enough to make me want to pick it up.

Wall-to-wall books said...

Oh this one sounds really good! And I love this time period too.
Thanks so much for the recommendation I would not have heard of it otherwise.

Aths said...

Wow, this sounds amazing! All that character development and historical research makes me want to check it out. The plot also sounds fabulous. Glad you loved and recommend it!

Lisa said...

I should probably stop reading your blog - I always end up adding another book to my wish list! This sounds great and definitely something that my book club might enjoy.

Harvee said...

Another good reviews. The book reminds me of The White Witch of Rosehall, a novel about slavery set in Jamaica, W.I., with an insane? female slave owner.

Marie said...

this sounds like a really terrific read. i'm pretty sure i have a galley somewhere- gotta go find it :-)

Amy said...

What an amazing story...I thought from the cover and title this book was something entirely different!

Granada sounds like both an old soul and a child and I can see how, as your reading, it might be difficult to remember she's a child when she behaves with the selfishness and single-mindedness of kids. It's amazing that the mistress steals her but then allows Polly to make Granada her assistant...both these things intrigue me.
It's sad that Granada is used as a pawn between Master and Mistress. I suppose because she's a child and more so a slave they don't consider what they're doing to her.

Your review has completely hooked me on this book and I'm going to get a copy as soon as possible! Thank you Heather!

Suko said...

This does sound excellent! I am also fascinated by natural healing (not as much by midwifery), and the plights of the slaves would certainly touch me; this book sounds as if it would keep "me trapped between the pages" as well. As usual, you've written a review that's coherent and well-organized, and have convinced me that I should read The Healing.

Jenners said...

Sounds wonderful. And I'd much rather read this than Zinn's book.

Darlene said...

I have heard good things about this book. I have it and really must make time to read it. Like you healing and midwifery fascinates me.

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

you and Kathy have got to stop reviewing books for at least a month so I can even begin to sort through the amazing books you've both recommended recently! This is yet another one I'm adding to my list!

Literary Feline said...

I love doing research and wonder if many of these authors do too--the information you find! And then expertly weaving it into your own story of fiction . . . Not that I would be any good at that, but I admire the author who is able to do it so well. It sounds like Jonathan Odell is one such author.

This does sound like an interesting book. Thanks for the great review!

Amy said...

This review reminded me that I need to read this already. I've been remiss in letting it sit on my shelf. Thanks again.

Beth F said...

Your review is so much better than mine. :) I would have loved to have heard Odell speak. The author's note at the end of the audio edition (including an interview with one of his sources) was almost as fascinating as the novel.

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