Set in the darkest heart of plantation-era slavery, The Healing (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) by Jonathan Odell is a remarkable rite-of-passage novel with an unforgettable character — a forceful medicine woman named Polly Shine.
Polly arrives in the life of Granada, a black slave girl who was robbed of her mother as a baby and is struggling to find her racial place and identity on a sprawling Mississippi Delta plantation in the decade leading up to the Civil War. Her personal journey takes fearsome turns in the hands of Polly.
With this backdrop, the book might run the risk of being stereotypical Southern slave epoch fiction. Set mostly in 1860, it includes an arrogant white plantation owner, Master Ben, and his mad, grief-stricken wife, Mistress Amanda, who live in a mansion with their young son, Little Lord, and a trained monkey named Daniel Webster.
But The Healing transcends any cliches of the genre with its captivating, at times almost lyrical, prose; its firm grasp of history; vivid scenes; and vital, fully realized people, particularly the slaves with their many shades of color and modes of survival — none more so than Polly Shine and Granada.
Old but still spry, Polly is a commanding presence, a midwife with mystical healing powers and potions drawn from roots, leaves, berries and bark. Polly sees Granada, who is approaching her 13th birthday, as a possible successor. But Granada, taken as a newborn to be raised as a surrogate daughter for the unstable Mistress Amanda, prefers the privileges of the mansion, unaware how fleeting they will be.
This is Southern fictional turf tilled by many others, and it is fair to ask why the novel's author, Jonathan Odell, chose to bring it dramatically to life once again. A Mississippi native who is white, Odell grew up amid the rigid racial injustices and cruelties of Jim Crow. After a career as a business consultant, he settled in Minnesota and, according to his note to readers, set out “to write novels focusing on the racial divide” after immersing himself in oral histories, slave narratives, interviews, books and courthouse files.
His first novel, The View From Delphi, is set in Mississippi before the modern civil rights era. He dug back deeper into history for The Healing.
“If you want to destroy a people, destroy their story,” he says in the note. “If you want to empower a people, give them a narrative to share.”
The Healing is just such a narrative.
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Photo: The Healing book cover