Monday, May 21, 2012

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

I just realized this is the fifth of Hoffman book that I've read! For a book tart, that's pretty good. From experience, I can tell you that I enjoy her short stories the most. And before you say, "But I don't do short stories," take a moment to consider The Red Garden.

The first point of note is that while this is a collection of stories, it's a short story cycle. That is, all of the stories are connected by location (Blackwell, Massachusetts; Hightop Mountain; Eel River). Furthermore, each story is set in a different year, and they follow several family lineages from the first story in the 1700s to the last story in the late 1900s (1990s I'd venture). What so many readers seem to dislike about short stories is the lack of continuity throughout a collection and a lack of depth and "knowing" the characters. This short story cycle structure really alleviates some of those concerns as many of the characters carry over from one story to the next. A precocious 6-year-old girl in one story may be the adult heroine in the next.

I was prompted to put this book on my wishlist for last year's Book Blogger Holiday Swap because I read another of Hoffman's collections, Blackbird House, several years ago, and it remains a favorite short story collection. It's also a beautiful cycle set around a single farm. and a specific home. Also set in Massachusetts, it takes place on the coast while The Red Garden is all about a mountain town. On a very basic, surface level I found the mountain setting magical and comfortable. As if I were snuggling down on a family vacation when I was growing up, always a bigger fan of the cool tree cover of the mountains than a scorching coast.

It's hard for me to tell you why I love this book simply because Hoffman's writing is somewhat enigmatic. Worst descriptor for writing ever? Mayyybe! Let's see if I can do better. There is always a sense of magic in Hoffman's writing. An elusive ghost here and there. A garden graveyard for a bear where the soil turns red and the plants all grow in crimson, the embodiment of heartbreak. It's just enough to give a sense of folklore and oral history, but in meeting the individual characters we see that they're very real people with real struggles in their time. They're likely to be memorialized in magical legend later on in the book as time ticks on and the residents of Blackwell lose the details over the course of 200 years.

I'm also fond of the fact that Hoffman doesn't shy away from the tragedy in this book. It's not all a downer, but these people lose love, lose their lives, experience illness and tragedy and great joy as well. In experiencing the lifetime of a family or a location, loss is part of the deal. But Hoffman writes it in such a wonderful, bittersweet way.

A few of my favorite stories:

"The Monster of Blackwell, 1956" - A young man with physical deformities runs away to live in the forest and survives off the land. By chance, he comes to the aid of a beautiful and promising young lady with a mind toward college. A Beauty and the Beast Story. Simple, sad, but enthralling.

"The Fisherman's Wife, 1935" - A strange young woman is rumored to be a mermaid. More likely she's married to a homicidal old nut, but our hero is determined to find out.

"The Red Garden, 1986" - The secrets of the red garden come to light and a difficult, lost young woman begins to discover her place in the world and in the town of Blackwell.

A passage from "The Truth About My Mother, 1903" - A sad story to start, but a hopeful, romantic end.
My mother's true feelings were there in her face. She didn't have to say anything to show how she felt about my father. He reacted as you might imagine he would. Hateful was too small a word. I wondered if the electricity at Luna Park had seeped into his skin, and that was why his meanness grew, like a charge, burning brighter throughout the spring. Fine weather seemed to affect him adversely. But in all honesty he drank whenever there was rain or snow or wind or falling leaves. He drank and burned, and we paid the price. We often kept the lights turned off, though ours had been one of the first houses in Brooklyn to be wired. We kept a lantern beneath my bed. 
As I've mentioned quite often lately, I appreciate those books that can carry me away into their imaginary world. Wrap around me like a blanket of rest and comfort. This was one of those books, and I am so thankful to have picked it up. Another winner in a string of winning reading.

Pub. Date: August 2011
Publisher: Broadway
Format: Trade Paperback
ISBN-13: 978-0307405975 
Source: A gift from Stacy at Stacy's Books

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