Author Jonathan Odell writes that American slaves and their descendants “have strived and survived as a proud of community and, in spite of every adversity imaginable, infused the larger American culture with a richness like none other.” Their story is our story, he maintains. What a story he tells in his second novel The Healing, to be released in February 2012. Historically accurate details and characters that seem to come to life on the page populate the book. The African-American slaves in Odell’s world are players, not pawns; they are active, not passive, participants in the oppressive and repressive institution that was slavery. The slaves try to forge identities for themselves and their families while slave owners do their best to suppress their attempts. Nothing, however, can stop Odell’s Polly Shine.
Odell previously wrote The View from Delphi. He currently lives in Minnesota but was born in Laurel, Mississippi, the hometown of this reviewer. The Healing is very personal to him as this novel works to heal the wounds slavery, segregation, and racism have left behind. In the author’s note to the reader, he recounts several instances of his early life in which he saw racism firsthand. His note is very revealing and allows readers a chance to see into his mind and his heart. In fact, I urge readers to read it first, as it will give you great insight into the author and his mindset.
Set on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta, The Healing began when the twelve-year-old daughter of Benjamin and Amanda Satterfield died of cholera. Mistress Amanda was distraught, even enraged and unstable, and took a baby from one of the Satterfield slaves to raise as her own. The mistress renamed the baby Granada and exiled her true parents to the swamps. Mistress Amanda dressed Granada in the clothes of her dead daughter and paraded her before friends and neighbors. Granada loved the clothes, for the clothes made the mistress notice her: “The clothes made her more than beautiful. They made her visible.” The sight of Granada, an African-American slave in the clothes of a white girl, appalled the whites. The mistress also had a pet monkey named Daniel Webster who perched on her shoulder. Here, Odell is rather heavy-handed. The reader is meant to compare Granada to the monkey; they are the same in the eyes of slaveholding whites. Perhaps Odell does not think readers would fully grasp the meaning without the presence of the monkey. Granada was just a slave, no matter how many fancy clothes she wore; she would never be the daughter of the mistress. She merely mimicked the world of the whites, and her emulations were met with disdain. As Granada tried to curtsy “like she had seen white women do,” the monkey pulled her hair, making her tilt to the side. She looked to see the reaction: “The women had dropped their eyes to the floor, looking red-faced, as if they had been slapped in church….” A man who watched her “hid his mouth behind his hand and coughed loudly.” The man’s eyes, Granada, saw, “danced with a wicked merriment.” Her mimicry only made Granada ridiculous, since “tying a scrap of red on a straw broom don’t make it no Christmas tree.” This worked even without Daniel Webster, although the monkey served a purpose later in the novel.
Everything changed on the plantation with the arrival of Polly Shine, who had “bird feathers stuck out of her braids this way and that, and around her neck she wore a ponderous necklace made of gleaming white shells.” Polly was “as skinny as a river bird, and draped over her shoulders was a mangy wrap made from the fur of some animal Granada imagined being too ugly to ever have lived.” Odell was at his very best when he wrote her scenes. Satterfield purchased Polly from North Carolina for the grand sum of five thousand dollars. The other slaves speculated as to her purpose there: “She was too unsightly to be thought of as frolic in bed for the master. She was too far past her childbearing years to multiply the stock. Though she seemed nimble enough, it was hard to imagine her being brought all the way from North Carolina for field work.” The reason for her presence was soon revealed: Polly was a healer, and the master hoped she could cure his slaves of the “blacktongue,” a disfiguring and painful disease. The master gave Polly lots of leeway. Polly even chose Granada to be her apprentice, causing a battle of wills between the mistress and the slave. Polly, however, emerged as the victor, leaving Granada furious and saddened. Polly did things her own way. Although she was a slave, she was really her own boss. I loved her and considered her Odell’s richest, most well-developed character. She stirred things up on the plantation so much so that nothing would be the same after her arrival for Granada, the Satterfields, or her fellow slaves. For example, Polly told Granada that Master Satterfield “can’t give you your Freedom. The Yankees when they come can’t. I can’t. If you think any somebody can, then you always going to be their slave.”
Readers will appreciate the meticulous research Odell conducted for The Healing. He combed through archives and listened to the Works Project Administration’s interviews with former slaves recorded in the 1930s. Odell also talked to numerous descendants of former slaves. His hard work paid off as historical accuracies abound in his novel. Odell painted a picture of a world in which house slaves believed they were better than field hands. That was true. Slaves were hierarchical. In the novel, the master had an affair with a slave named Rubina, a typical practice. The mistress knew of her husband’s affair and hated him (and Rubina) for it. This, too, was historically accurate. In fact, many mistresses treated any children from such dalliances cruelly. In The Healing, Satterfield named his slaves and this sometimes occurred. Not all masters named their slaves, however. Ella, Granada’s natural mother, originally gave her daughter an African name, Yewande. In the slave south, slaves could not come and go as they pleased. Written permission from the master was required. Odell showed readers the same was true for Polly Shine. Slaves also resisted slavery through rebellion. Their resistance might be active (revolt) or passive (everyday rebellion). Near the end of Odell’s novel, we saw Satterfield’s slaves engaging in rebellious acts against the master. Therefore Odell gave us a story that very well might have happened, even if it was fiction. Nothing he writes was inaccurate or not plausible.
The world of Odell’s imagining is one in which readers will want to immerse themselves. Filled with both historical accuracy and vivid, rich, detailed characters, The Healing proves Odell is an up-and-coming author. The Healing recalls earlier greats such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I believe Odell will receive great acclaim. With The Healing, he will certainly put Laurel, Mississippi, on the literary map. Oxford who?
The version I read was an Advance Reading Copy. Thank you, Todd Doughty.