- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2011

By Alice Hoffman
Crown Publishers, $25 288 pages

Behind the Brady house where Hallie Brady’s descendants lived was a garden where the earth was blood red and every plant, be it a lilac or a green bean, turned red. It was in this garden that Hallie had buried her newborn baby son and, later, an old bear that she had befriended.

Alice Hoffman’s new novel, “The Red Garden,” begins in 1750, when Hallie, her husband and three other families moved west in Massachusetts into uncharted land, “fumbling through the wilderness until an early blinding snowstorm stopped their progress.”

They called the town they founded “Bearsville” since “there were nearly as many black bears in the woods then as there were pine trees, but there were also more eel in the river than there were ferns sprouting on the banks.” The river they called the Eel. Later, Bearsville was renamed Blackwell; it was located in a pretty valley in the shadow of Hightop Mountain, “a craggy Berkshire County landmark that separated Blackwell from the rest of the world.”

It was 17-year-old Hallie who kept the little group alive in that first winter when the snowdrifts were eight feet high, there was little wood to keep fires burning and there was nothing left to eat. She took her husband’s rifle and set forth into the forest, for she “would rather die trying to live than simply give up like the rest of [the group].” The rabbits she shot, the eels she caught and the dormant, nursing mother bear’s milk she collected kept everyone alive.

The town prospered and grew. The rich harvest of eels led to a profitable eel-skin industry. There was even a small history museum where relics of the early days were on display.

By 1900, “Blackwell was deep in Berkshire County, where the weather was mysterious and the people were equally unpredictable. Several of the inhabitants were descendants of the founding settlers, families who had intermarried often enough so that many of the women had red hair, with mercurial tempers that suited their coloring. The men were tall and quiet and good at most everything. All of the dogs in town were collies, smart, fast dogs, used to herd cows and sheep, they answered to an individual whistle as if they were birds instead of dogs and understood songs as easily as words.”

“The Red Garden” consists of 14 chapters, each an independent short story, connected by the common ancestry of the characters as well as the town itself, which even by the year 2000 remained isolated; the “closest movie theater was forty miles away. People went to bed early and worked hard.”

The first story follows Hallie’s adventures in the mid-18th century as she fearlessly tackles the unknown. In the last chapter, Hallie’s descendant, young James Mott, takes life in stride and sets forth alone with only his dog for company at the end of the 20th century, except that Hallie moved west, while James goes in the opposite direction, leaving Blackwell and returning east toward the unknown dangers of New York City.

Alice Hoffman is a fine storyteller, and each of her stories gives a different insight into the lives of the inhabitants of Blackwell. It is primarily the women who bring about change; they are filled with romantic dreams but unafraid of facing reality and risky love affairs.

Hallie herself meets a trapper in the woods with whom she experiences some of life’s magic. Her granddaughter, Minette Jacob, is saved from suicide by a young wanderer, who plants an apple tree in the middle of town. The tree blossoms unexpectedly in midwinter. When the young man leaves town, “Minette kissed him good-bye in a way she had never kissed her husband, and John kissed her back as if she was perfect and wondrous and alive.”

In 1816, a handsome horse trader helps Mary Starr search for her little sister, Amy, who has drowned in the Eel River. Mary runs off with the horse trader, leaving her parents bereft at the loss of two daughters.

When Mattie Starr loses her husband in the Civil War, she goes mad with grief. “She wondered what it would feel like to drown. How the water would fill your mouth and throat, how you would sink to the stony bottom where the currents were so green and cold, the chilly places the eels like best. You would look up and see the sky through the water and everything would be reversed.” But Mattie doesn’t drown, thanks to a young man who lost his leg in the war.

Hannah Partridge was “young and attractive,” but she “retained a stony aloofness. … She had an uncanny ability to gauge who was in need, often appearing at someone’s back door with exactly what they yearned for most[.]” She did not want to marry, but longed for a child. At 35, she felt her life had not yet begun. But begin it did when she met a lively actress who had come to town to perform at the annual Founder’s Day celebration. When Hannah’s sister, who had served in Europe as a nurse during World War II, returns from France with a little daughter (and no husband), Hannah’s life is complete.

Lonely teenage Carla is happy to have a friend when Ava and her daughter, Tessa, move into town in 1961. The girls are inseparable, but Carla betrays her friend when she misinterprets a scene she witnesses in the Eel River.

Many of the elements of fairy tales are present in these stories: the little girl who drowns in the river but appears in her blue dress from time to time when something is about to happen; the beautiful young fisherman’s wife who turns into an eel; the bear whose milk saves a town; the young man who thinks he is too ugly to be part of society and lives alone in the woods writing love poems to his beloved; and the magical red garden itself.

There are lovely descriptive passages of the mountain, the forest, the Eel River, the biting black flies in the summer and the swarms of buzzing bees in the fields. The language of the stories gradually changes from an old-fashioned semiformal style to a harsher contemporary tone.

“The Red Garden” is not great literature, but it is a delightful, sometimes enthralling collection of well-written stories, an effective combination of romance and reality.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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