BOOK REVIEW | FICTION
Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Latest Novel Captures 1865s Rise of a Nation
By Claudia Moss August 22, 2016
BALM: A Novel
By Dolen Perkins-Valdez
293 pp. Amistad / HarperCollins
“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole” begins the epigraph in “Balm,” Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s mesmerizingly beautiful new novel. The New York Times bestselling author has earned critical acclaim for her debut novel, “Wench” (2010), an O, The Oprah Magazine’s Top Ten Pick of the Month, a 2011 finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction.
In her haunting, sophomore novel, Perkins-Valdez returns to the post-Civil War era to weave an unforgettable story of love, loss and healing.
Dolen Perkins-Valdez http://www.hurstonwright.org
The subject of the novel is etched in the words of Private James Heil, a deceased soldier, who dies in 1862 after the battle of Shiloh: “You want to know how we rose from the smoke of battle, not how we fell.” The spirit is correct. The listener, his brother, Dr. Michael Heil, longs to know what happens to soldiers who exhibit bravery and patriotism as they march into battle and live to tell about it, same as readers long to learn what happens to people who struggle to stand and rebuild their lives after devastating loss.
Perkins-Valdez paints a picture-perfect backdrop for a cruel period in American History. She skillfully drops us into a world of hackneys and carriages, telegraphs and Irish stevedores, draymen and coachmen, white sky and banked snow, and stockyards and railroads. Freedmen amble, seeking lost family. Paperboys call. Ladies peer from behind the curtained windows of carriages. On the boulevards, grit swirls, blinding eyes and coating tongues. At once a haven and a “pesthole,” Chicago, Illinois, springs to life and is as aptly drawn as its remarkable characters. A recipient of a generous DC Commission on the Arts Grant, Dolen, who visited archives, libraries, battlefields, and museums to capture the vivacity of the historical period, says, “I could not have done it without their support.”
Three characters—Madge, Sadie, and Hemp—are captivating voices to further immerse readers in this post-Civil War era. Madge, a freewoman, has never known the crushing humiliation of slavery, yet she knows what it means to demand one’s liberty. A young woman, she decides to abandon the protection and community of what she has known and venture into the unknown, the big city, her heroic journey towards independence and selfhood a human necessity. In Kentucky woods, she leaves behind the sisters, her mother and two aunts, in whose shadows she has known silence and invisibility. Later, bedazzled on Chicago streets and boulevards, Madge relies on her knowledge of the sisters’ botanic teachings and culls a healing place for herself that supports her livelihood, and, most importantly, answers her heart’s deepest longing.
Then there is Sadie, a young bride, resentment towards her father pulsing behind her black finery, who enters the city alone to take her place beside her new husband and among his amassed goods in a house that moves from prison to sanctuary, shifting with her changing perceptions. Widowed before she is a proper wife, Mrs. Walker, promptly wealthy, must decide what to do with herself in a world where she desires to be useful, to lend a healing hand in troubling times. The answer comes in a “throaty” male voice, a spirit, who begins to speak to her because he has tired of silence. Mediums, though, and, in particular, female mediums, are to be validated, held in contempt and socially isolated. Yet Sadie comes upon a stirring truth of self discovery that leads her towards what she truly seeks.
Hemp, known as “Horse” on Mr. Harrison’s hemp plantation, renames himself to shorten the long arm of Mr. Harrison’s detestable hold, when he and a housemaid, the only two left after freedom comes, walk off the place in broad daylight, after Hemp has buried the old man. By the novel’s close, Hemp renames himself “Thomas,” his father’s name. With the aid of a missionary, he finds his way to the big city in his valiant search for his beloved wife, Annie. Years prior, he watches her trudge away at the back of a coffle, sold to defray Mr. Harrison’s mounting debts. Unable to protect his wife and her daughter Herod, Hemp knows the lash of shame, which amplifies his search efforts. Eventually he walks into Madge’s life and the two must bow to the ghost of Annie and Hemp’s possible indiscretion with his step-daughter to embrace the morning of a new day.
The title is well chosen. The balm of forgiveness is a must for the characters to determine what to do with their lives after they suffer devastating loss. Balm thrives in the healing love that Hemp, a worker in rope and wood, offers Madge as his new bride. A spiritual balm thrives in the words of the spirits that come through Sadie for the masses who visit her home and attend her public gatherings, as they seek consoling messages from deceased loved ones. Moreover, Mother Nature’s balms that Madge creates from her beloved herbage, salves that heal the body and the spirit, something the people, especially her people, black people, can use to anchor their faith in their own restoration, prove elixirs that heal throughout the novel and at the denouement.
With language as elegiac as the novel’s subject, the narrative is an impressive tapestry. A melody of opera that stymies the heart. A phantasmagoric shimmer in a crowded drawing room. A reckoning that softens malice and shame. Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s voice commands, drawing the reader to attention. Hers is a reading that courts the eye and ear, and readers will find themselves reading and rereading to imbibe what cannot be gulped. The novel is a testament to not only a reader’s heart but also to a writer’s soul.
Though I counted a few typographical mistakes on two fingers, while sometimes wondering how some of the dialogue was ostensibly a question sans a question mark, I bowed to Perkins-Valdez’s artistry. The characters articulate question-like statements that make for intriguing exchanges, same as she culls a masterful dialogue that rings of conversational speech: the question answered with a question, the exchange that seemingly meanders off kilter in the same conversation yet finds its way back to the topic, and chapters beginning with a reference to a coming clarification, a lovely hook that reminds this author of Toni Morrison’s inimitable style.
With depth and grace, “Balm” ineluctably whets the palate for the next Perkins-Valdez gem.
I’m a life-long reader, and as a writer, I know it has ever fed my creativity and imagination. I’d love to know what you’re reading now. What you read this summer. What you love reading. Let’s chat!