Though her novels have mostly focused on the lives of black people, Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s unique contribution has been vivid, historical fiction—so alive and so rich that one has to say that “the past lives,” not only in her novels but also, often to their regret, in her characters. This is true of her earlier novel, Wench, published in 2010 and now even more so in Balm. She knows both her milieu and her people, and unlike the novels of Toni Morrison, with whom she shares a certain affinity, the pain in Perkins-Valdez’s writing is never relentless and unforgiving. After only two novels, it is possible to say that Perkins-Valdez is busily charting her own territory, and the result—for the second time—is a totally satisfying novel, something that cannot be said that often these days.
In Balm, three main characters seek new beginnings in Chicago, at the end of the Civil War. Two are African-American, one is white, and they share the frustrations of displacement. One was formerly a slave. That’s not true of Madge, from Tennessee, who was free, but her emotional baggage from the past includes a household of cold women, including a mother who never gave her a moment’s attention. When Madge departs for Chicago as a young woman barely out of her teens, her mother doesn’t even bother to say good-bye. All Madge takes with her from her past is her knowledge of healing, medicinal concoctions from plants and trees. In time, these will serve her well, since medicine practiced by men who have been to medical school is still intimidating for people who have fled the South and are more comfortable with traditional methods.
Hemp Harrison, by contrast, was a slave, who knew the horrors of slavery in Kentucky—above all the whims of white slave owners who indiscriminately broke up black families. Hemp has been taken to Chicago by a white missionary, who says he will assist him in locating is wife, Annie, and their daughter, Herod. If Hemp’s owner had no respect for the unions of his slaves, Hemp himself is determined to remain faithful to his wife and daughter, to keep the family unit intact. That determination will shortly be tested by Madge, who sees in Hemp the kind of strong black man she has rarely observed in her earlier life. Hemp is the least certain of his identity in the North; that’s how much he has been intimidated. As he muses, after still another slight in his new environment, “Even in this free world, white men handled his fate as loosely as seeds thrown into a dirt row.”
The third transported soul is Sadie, a white woman, who arrives in Chicago to be with her husband, only a few weeks after they have been married. Sadie is from Pennsylvania and she discovers that her husband of such a short time was killed in a train accident. It had been an arranged marriage to a man of great wealth, so her loss is not emotional—nothing near Hemp’s longing for his wife. Soon after her arrival, she begins to hear a strange voice. In time the voice will tell her that he is Private James Heil, who was killed in the war. Thus, the recent history of the country impacts the lives of all three of Perkins-Valdez’s characters. It doesn’t take long before Sadie sets herself up as a medium, a spiritualist, who answers the questions of survivors who have lost a loved one, using James Heil as her conduit. In time, Hemp will test Sadie’s powers, asking her to determine if Annie is dead or among the living.
A passage about Sadie’s spiritual powers expands one of the major themes of the novel: lost souls, after the Civil War, searching for their loved ones and hopeful for a modicum of information about what has happened to them. Perkins-Valdez observes of Sadie’s clientele, “They came to hear a word from the fallen, widows hoping anxiously to hear from dead husbands, mothers bringing children to hear a father’s voice. Although spiritualists had existed before the war, Sadie discovered that the time generated an even greater thirst for her services. They had marched into her parlor, searching uncertainly for the right words, the right memories to uphold their families, the widows carefully appraising their prospects, this new, untested autonomy like an ill-fitting dress. Within the vast city, the manlessness of wartime had lain them bare. Thousands of casualties meant that death had become more than a personal grievance: it required an entirely new way of thinking.”
And Chicago? Perkins-Valdez conjures up the Chicago of our greatest American writers, summing up the city’s hopes and expectations in a single, terse sentence: “The city was constantly regenerating….” That regeneration will embrace the lives of the novel’s three characters—not without a great amount of turmoil in the process. Hemp craves normality, but also the possibility of a loving family. Sadie needs to break from the spiritualism that soon limits her opportunities to begin a new life. Madge needs to feel that she is her own woman, free of the stultifying past in that household of cold women. And Perkins-Valdez, remarking about the recent cataclysm of the Civil War, observes, movingly, “In a land so devastated by death, the best healing balm was hope.”
Dolen Perkins-Valdez: Balm
Amistad, 272 pp., $25.99