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.