If I had to write a one-word review of Jonathan Odell’s new novel The Healing, the word would be “audacious.”
It takes some nerve for a writer who is white and male to attempt serious historical fiction in which life on a pre-Civil War cotton plantation is experienced and recalled by slave women. This is literary territory associated with African-American writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. But speaking as someone who has read all three of them and more, I believe Odell pulls it off with honesty, modesty and grace.
Odell, who hails from my hometown, Laurel, Mississippi, is not as poetic a writer as those three celebrated black novelists – or white Mississippi icons such as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, for that matter. His prose is plainer, quieter, more functional. And yet… there are scenes The Healing so perfectly described and stretches of conversation so fluid and musical that the book practically sings to you.
“I started out trying to capture the language as historically accurate as possible,” Odell told me in an interview. “It was authentic, but it was a great labor to read. It’s no good getting the language right if no one has the patience to slog through it. I finally decided that it wasn’t the precession of pronunciation that was necessary, it was the lyricism of the dialogue. Blacks and whites in the south, true southerners, sing their language. It’s the music I go for, in as few notes as possible.”
The Healing opens in 1933 with strangers depositing a dead woman and her newly orphaned, unspeaking girl child on the doorstep of a 90-something black woman, a former midwife known to the folks in the “Shinetown” quarters outside Delphi, Mississippi, as GranGran. As GranGran patiently strives to calm and connect with Violet, the traumatized girl, she begins to recall her own childhood in the 1840s on the vast Satterfield plantation and events that transpired after Master Ben imported a slave with reputedly magical healing powers from South Carolina in hopes of quelling an epidemic decimating his human “stock.”
Some say this Polly Shine is a hoodoo woman or a conjurer; others see her as a holy woman, a prophet, a natural healer. Whichever the case, “Mother Polly” is a remarkable, riveting character – and a plum role in an all-but-certain movie version to come, much the way Miss Jane Pittman, from Ernest J. Gaines novel, was the part of a lifetime for Cicely Tyson.
The book has a strong feminist undertone and is also quite spiritual. One of the most beautiful sections is a conversation about God between Polly and her chosen apprentice, Granada, a young house slave who wants nothing more dearly than to return to her “privileged” place as the white mistress’s pet and the marble-shooting playmate of the young master.
Polly says white folks up in the big house act as though creation is finished and everything’s settled and the way it’s supposed to be. “God’s always creating something,” Polly tells her. “Always something trying to be born.”
“In the beginning God created,” she says. “That’s all anybody need to know about God, Granada. It ain’t never over with God.”
Odell acknowledged that he took a creative leap with regard to The Healing’s perspective.
“It does seem the height of arrogance,” he said. “In fact, in the early stages I had as many major white characters as black, just to balance things out. But the more I became familiar with the lives of black women through the slave narratives and oral histories, the more they dominated the book…. And then, when Polly Shine came on the scene, she took the book hostage. As you notice, I tell the story through Granada’s viewpoint. We learn about Polly by the impact she has on others. I could never enter her head. She would never allow me to write directly from her thoughts. She insisted, even with me as the author, on keeping a certain psychological distance. To know someone completely is in some degree to control them through expectation. Polly insisted on being set free from that ‘wheel of predetermination.’ She was always surprising me. She got into my head more than I got into hers.”
The Healing, which hit bookstores February 21, germinated from at least as early as 2005, when Odell’s first novel, The View from Delphi, was published.
“I took an era in history that I thought I was familiar with but studied it from various viewpoints — black, white, slave as well as the slave owner, the medical scientist and the voodoo healer, the feminist,” he said. “In doing this I found incidents that had typically been understood in a predictable way, to suit the dominant culture, (but that) could be explained entirely differently when examined from another viewpoint, especially around race.”
He read or listened to hundreds of interviews with ex-slaves conducted in the 1930s under the auspices of the WPA.
“The interviewer was usually some white person, often from the same location as the ex-slave being interviewed,” he said. “So you had to be careful. This was in (the era of) Jim Crow and blacks had to be careful what they said to white folks, especially when it tended to go against the prevalent ‘Myth of the Lost Cause,’ in which every slave owner was benevolent and slaves were loved and well cared for. There also exists a set of interviews taken by students from Fisk University, a black college, in the 1930s. In many of these, the ex-slaves were more critical of their ex-masters. So you had to read between the lines. You had to consider not only who was talking, but who was listening. You also got a feel for how blacks had to be adroit and playful with language. They could be critical while seeming to be complementary. I got a lot of Polly Shine’s humor from these turns of phrases.’’
Odell said he learned much of what’s in the novel about Polly’s remedies and roots and potions from the WPA narratives. Other ideas came from books on Native American healing, and some even came from his own relatives’ memories of life in remote Mississippi communities where self-doctoring was the rule.
Not all his research was second-hand. He discovered the past is vividly present in many living people’s memories. “I spent countless hours in folks homes, them going through boxes of photos and clippings, telling the saga of their family. And the anecdotes handed down through the generations! Just a gold mine of material.”
He elatedly recalled the time he spent with a 92-year-old midwife from Midnight, Mississippi. “Mrs. Turner was nearly deaf, so to conduct the interview I either wrote my words or shouted,” he said. “Her 70-year-old daughter was present to assist, and luckily could shout louder than I. We spent a lively afternoon shouting at each other, sharing stories, and laughing. She had a wicked sense of humor. Even at her advanced age, she was such a commanding personality that her presence stayed with me throughout the time it took me to write The Healing.
“She told me how she ‘caught’ 2,063 babies in her home county of Humphries alone, sometimes delivering three babies in one day, and still going to the fields to chop cotton,” Odell said. “There were weeks when she slept only two or three nights in her own bed. She was ready whenever the men folk came for her. She said, ‘They come at me with a wagon, they come at me on a mule. They come at me on foot.’ She checked with her husband before she committed to the life. She said, ‘Men are going to be coming for me at all hours. Colored men. White men. Mexican. All nations of men. Can you live with that?’ He said he could and even took charge of caring for the house and raising their children.”
Beyond telling an eye-opening, compelling story, Odell hopes The Healing goes a ways toward addressing our country’s oldest, still-debilitating wound.
“I’m fascinated with the ways in which I have been shaped, unconsciously, by a black America, even though their story has been mostly silenced, or made subservient to the white story,” he said. “That’s what I told African Americans when I asked to interview them. I told them the history that I was given as a white man was bogus, embellished to make me feel good about myself. That I had a strong suspicion that their stories helped make me who I am. I believed that by discovering the texture of their lives and history, I would better understand the gaps in mine.
“I believe that’s what white Southern writers are attempting to do. We know there is a tear in the fabric of our narrative and it has to do with the physical closeness yet psychological distance we had with black folks. Most of us are very clumsy when we go about trying to knit-up that tear, but we are called to heal that wound nevertheless.”