Fans of Alice Hoffman will love her latest novel, "The Red Garden" (January 2011, Crown, $25 hardcover, 270 pp.) The lyrically written book is more like a series of 14 stories centered over a couple of centuries in Blackwell, a small town in the mountains of Massachusetts.
I took out the audiobook version from the Pottstown Public Library to keep me awake for a trip to western PA, and was pleasantly surprised that actress Nancy Travis was voicing the novel. Travis also voiced Hoffman's novel "The Ice Queen" (which I didn't enjoy as much as "The Red Garden." See my review of "The Ice Queen" here)
Though I wasn't pleased with "The Ice Queen," Travis is the perfect choice to read any of Hoffman's books aloud. Her dispassionate yet nuanced reading does justice to Hoffman's prose, in my opinion.
"The Red Garden" starts in 1750 with the founding of Blackwell, Mass., which was originally called Bearsville because of all the bears in the vicinity. Town founder Hallie Brady arrives in the unpopulated woods of the Berkshires, near Hightop Mountain, with her husband and another couple who are seeking land and their fortunes. However, Hallie's husband proves not to be the best navigator, and the group travels in circles around the area. Fall becomes winter and they are forced to set up camp.
With everyone freezing and starving, and no one else taking the initiative, Hallie goes out into the wilderness with her husband's rifle and boots to find food. She brings back small game and - miraculously - bear's milk. Her discovery of a hibernating bear in a cave on the mountain literally saves the settlers. From then on, bears are protected in the tiny village that will become Blackwell.
In pure Hoffman style (that's her pictured at left), the stories of the inhabitants of Blackwell, beginning with Hallie, are fraught with loneliness and longing and sometimes a spot of magic. It seems not many of the characters get "what they truly want." The founding families of Blackwell and their descendants are featured in the vignettes, which range from poignant to sinister.
John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) and his brother visit town, spreading their seeds for what will become an orchard and a legendary town tree known as the "Tree of Life," the fruit of which sustains the town through one sparse winter. Emily Dickinson and her beloved dog appear in one of the tales.
Blackwell grows from hunter's outpost to typical small town. Many things in town stay the same over the years: The mountain and its caves, the frigid Eel River, and a garden on the original Brady land where the soil stays blood red and anything planted there turns red, too - even green beans and lilacs. Hence the name of the novel.
True to the magical realism that's a signature of Hoffman's previous novels, "The Red Garden" references the inexplicable: Apparitions and legends, a lot of loners (men who turn into bears, women who love them; women who act like bears and the men who love them), cakes with magical powers, spooky creatures. And, of course, there's quite a bit of passion and heat (and the color red), weather anomalies, and even shapeshifting - a woman who's been turned into an eel.
But mostly it's the story of a small town and the folks - some of them extraordinary - who live in it. Through the stories and the years, Hoffman keeps you guessing as to what will come next. Her writing is lush and charged and sensual. "The Red Garden"is never boring.
About the author:
A native of Long Island, Hoffman, 59, earned a BA from Adelphi University, and a Mirrellees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center, which she attended in 1973 and 74, receiving an MA in creative writing. She resides in Boston.
Hoffman wrote her first novel, "Property Of" when she was just 21 and was studying at Stanford. Since then, she has published a 18 novels, two books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults. Her works of fiction include "Practical Magic," "Turtle Moon," "Illumination Night," and "Blackbird House."
To learn more about Hoffman and her novels, visit her website.