Rue and her mother May Belle are newly-freed residents of a southern plantation immediately following the Civil War. The big plantation home has been burned to the ground, their master shot himself, the northern armies have come rampaging through, and the former slaves are left to try to start new lives. May Belle had been the community healer, with extensive herbal knowledge, some considerable savvy as to how to employ magic and mystique to aid patient buy-in to her methods, and (as a result) some status in the community. Her daughter has grown up watching and learning from her, and when May Belle dies, Rue naturally steps into the job. Much starts to happen and go wrong. As the midwife, Rue helps birth a child with an unusual appearance who is pretty much viewed as cursed. A strange illness ravages the settlement, especially striking down children. Public opinion turns against Rue and she begins to be treated as a witch. A traveling preacher periodically comes around and people flock to him for salvation through traditional religion. In the meantime, Rue and one other person have hidden the remaining family member of the plantation owner (his daughter Varina) in a cellar compartment under a ruined church located deep in the surrounding woods. In order to keep from being thrown off the plantation property, Rue and her conspirator trade letters back and forth with a white, northern distant family connection, weaving tales of how the hidden Varina is actually doing well at managing things post-war. Varina, in the meantime, has been told the war is still going on and that she must hide to avoid the northern soldiers.
It’s quite a story. The author does an especially effective job of evoking the spooky, claustrophobic, dangerous and hard-scrabble slave life of antebellum times. (For any of you who have visited the locales of former Southern plantations, you will be immediately drawn in by her descriptions.) She has done a lot of research and put it to very good use.
The book doesn’t read like a typical Young Adult novel, although Rue and Varina are in their teens for a significant part of the story. Let’s face it–young adults in that era weren’t living in the same world as young adults today. We do read about how they are introduced to some aspects of adult life in ways peculiar to their culture and times.
There is graphic violence in this book. There is some bad language (I would say, predominantly g**dammit or some variation thereof). There is rape. There are graphic descriptions of childbirth and sex. There is often an air of menace and foreboding. I can’t imagine that reading any of this would do any serious harm to older readers.
With all it has going for it, this book feels curiously diffuse, like it needed another vigorous round of editing to bring its strong points into sharper focus. It makes me think of Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which, although Harper’s creation, required extensive shaping and collaboration to turn it into the powerful classic it became. Nevertheless, CONJURE WOMEN has value for its presentation of a unique era and way of life.
Categories: Civil Rights, Crime, Death and Grieving, Diversity, Dysfunctional Relationships, Historical Fiction, Offensive Language in YA Literature, Racism, Social Disorders, Supernatural/Occult, Violence, Wizarding and Magic