Cuyahoga River

Cuyahoga River
Cuyahoga River in the Valley

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hoffman's Writing Magic

Alice Hoffman tells a great story, and the story of the Sparrow women and the rest of Unity in The Probable Future is a good yarn. I admit to listening to it on audiotape read by Susan Ericksen, but I could have sworn it was the author reading it in her wonderfully descriptive prose. The thing about Alice is, when I hear her words, I’m impressed by the vivid descriptions. She creates a world that’s real but not real because there’s always an otherworldly quality to the lives the people lead, like the Sparrow Women in this story.

Rebecca Sparrow, who mysteriously appeared in the forest on the outskirts of Unity (a town outside Boston) a few hundred years ago, was given the last name Sparrow because she would stand still on the edge of a pond and the birds alighted on her. She became a washerwoman, and the story becomes tragic when the boys in town figured out she couldn’t feel pain. The Sparrow women living in Cake House, the house that looks like a wedding cake and was built in layers, keep a cabinet in a corner of the parlor to showcase, shrouded by an old tapestry. Inside, hidden and hopefully forgotten are the blood-tipped arrows that pierced Rebecca’s skin and the long black braid cut from her head when the townsfolk determined she was a witch and drowned her in the pond. It was that same pond that her lover’s horse, with her lover on its back, was frightened into and drowned soon after. This background is always at the forefront of the Sparrow Women’s story, and their lineage follows the female line, not the male line. Each woman in each generation has a gift and all had black hair except for the very last one: Stella.

Teenaged Stella's dreaded gift is the ability to see how people will die. Stella and her marriage-embittered but husband-hopeful mother, Jenny, aren’t getting along so well. Jenny had been sure she was destined to marry her ex-husband, after all she knew his dreams. Jenny’s life with Stella’s father had been turbulent: the man philandered and drank too much, and so Jenny struggled with how her gift could mess her up so much. Jenny’s mother Elinor, who lives in Cake House and has been grieving for her husband ever since he died in a car accident and she found out immediately afterwards that he’d been unfaithful, warned Jenny about the man she chose for a husband. The two women have been estranged ever since Jenny ran off with Will. Elinor, too, wonders about the power of her gift; hers was to know falsehood, but she hadn’t recognized the falsehood in her own husband.

Stella’s vision of a young woman getting her throat slashed gets the story moving. Will is accused of murder after the woman does die, because he reported the crime his daughter foresaw. With all the hullabaloo in Boston after Will’s arrest, Jenny takes Stella to stay with her mother Elinor, where Stella promptly falls in love with Unity and embarks on the adventure of learning about the Sparrow women, whose renowned past has been kept from her. When Jenny’s life is turned topsy turvy upon Will’s return to their Boston apartment, Jenny is forced to move into Cakehouse as well, and she and Elinor embrace past mistakes.

The book is a treat to read. I was wrapped up in the stories of all the characters in the book, from Elinor who knows a steadfast love with the town doctor who places her on a pedestal and is there when she needs him to Stella who is infatuated by one boy but drawn to another for his friendship. The most fascinating story of all is that of Jenny, who discovers it wasn’t Will’s dream but his brother Matt’s that she knew all those years before—Matt was her true love. Although endowed with supernatural gifts, all the gifts the Sparrow women had forsook them, all the way back to Rebecca who felt no pain and was drowned because of it.

The jacket cover calls the book a “tour de force, this vivid and intriguing cast of characters confronts a haunting past—and a very current murder—against the evocative backdrop of small-town New England. By turns chilling and enchanting, it chronicles the Sparrows’ legacy as young Stella struggles to cope with her disturbing clairvoyance.” The novel may have been a tour de force, but I took what was happening to the characters quite seriously while I was immersed in it. As always, Hoffman takes real life and braids it with the supernatural, and the result is magical.

For that, Hoffman is my favorite author. Her storytelling techniques wow me. Alice Hoffman’s novel Blue Diary was so good I bought it as an example of caressingly accurate good writing. At the time I wrote “Hoffman’s words weave together the beauty of nature and the feelings of her characters in a magic-like way. She’s the only writer whose work I await with expectation.” Like Practical Magic, transformed for the screen and whose characters were both believable and astonishingly bizarre, the themes of magic, the paranormal, and the dysfunctional repeat with regularity in the stories and expand the reader’s reality. A few years ago, when I read White Horses, I wrote “It’s a wonderful escape, reading Hoffman. She draws the reader in and makes us know the people and their stories and we relate to them and feel for them. They’re imprinted into us. We take them with us ever after and we don’t want the story to end because they end and don’t go on, those real live characters so magically brought to life from ink on paper.” As the San Francisco Chronicle said, “White Horses will reverberate in readers’ imaginations for a long time.” People magazine says her books are “Full of wonderful moments.” Hoffman reaches deep and brings the stuff of life forth in such a sensual and of the moment way, it’s like weaving a spell over us.

Over the years, I’ve also read Skylight Confessions, The Ice Queen, The Foretelling, Blackbird House (short stories), and The River King. From the time I read Turtle Moon, I knew that whenever I want to become lost in another reality, Hoffman’s books are guaranteed to satisfy that hunger. Two books were disappointing: Angel Landing and Here on Earth. Unfortunately, it was Here on Earth that my book discussion read, so Hoffman missed out on some hearty fans. About Angel Landing I wrote that I was disappointed I bought the book. When Hoffman fails, she flops—she must get distracted or hurried and the writing process fails her. But even then, her stories of love and regret, of finding self, woven into the practical and the magical and all the twists and turns a life can take, are still inspiring for a writer.

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