Cuyahoga River

Cuyahoga River
Cuyahoga River in the Valley

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Alice Hoffman, Making Connections Again and Again

Alice Hoffman is one writer whose books I always look for and always read. When I saw The Red Garden, I had to pick it up. This book was better than some of her more recent books, but not as good as her earlier ones. I agree with Entertainment Weekly—“She is a born storyteller.” Because she was a born storyteller, she’s published 29 works of fiction and her work has been translated into 20 languages. That’s impressive. Few fiction writers today achieve that.

As usual, the scene is a small town in New England. The book takes us through 300 years of time, moving chronologically from one person’s view to another’s, the tales intersecting in family lines and community connections. We read about “passion, dark secrets, loyalty, and redemption in a web of tales where characters’ lives are intertwined by fate and by their own actions.: We start with the town’s founder Hallie Brady, who slept with bears and the “mysterious garden where only red plants can grow, and where the truth can be found by those who dare to look,” the place where the bear that Harry shot was buried, causing Hallie to run off and never be seen again. But I had trouble finding the common thread or understanding what Hoffman was doing, even though the writing was beautiful and we always had the sense of the mysterious and magical.

In “Eight Nights of Love, 1792,” John says to Minette, “’You have no idea what’s inside of you,’” and Minette realizes “There was some sort of spark between them that had to do with questions and answers. But there was also something more. Minette felt a if she were opening, as if what was bruised insider her was in his hands. She wondered if this is what an angel did to you.”

In “The Truth About My Mother, 1903,” we learn about a schoolteacher who arrived mysteriously to teach the children of Blackwell (originally called Bearsville), who created a tale about who she was. “When she first arrived, she would stand outside in the garden late at night, when everyone else was in bed. People thought they were hearing coyotes, or one of the dozens of panthers that remained in the woods, but it was my mother, standing in the yard, crying.”

“King of the Bees,” the last chapter, ends with bees chasing James and Arthur. “When he had no choice and the steep riverbank was before them, James leapt into the Eel River, the boy in his arms. They went into the cold water, then resurfaced, sputtering and safe from harm. James thought about the garden, with soil so red it seemed to have a bloody, beating heart. He thought about where it was people went when they died, and how when he squinted he oculd see Cody, racing back and forth, barking, how his father seemed to stand right there on the riverbank, turning back the bees, closer than he’d ever been before.”

We’re all connected and there’s more to know than what we see, and that bear buried in the garden is symbolic of need and love and loss. As Jodi Picoult said, “When it comes to blending magic and the mundane routines of life, there’s no finder writer than Alice Hoffman . . . [She] reminds us with every sentence that words have the power to transport us to alternate worlds, to heal a broken heart, and to tie us irrevocably to the people we love.”

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