The Red Garden – Alice Hoffman

… for events are as much the parents of the future as they were the children of the past…(John Galsworthy)

I kept waiting for the events in Alice Hoffman’s The Red Garden to come together, connecting characters and historical incidents as she follows the town of Blackwell from inception to middle age.   Instead, her chapters become a series of short stories,  following each generation in this small town in the Berkshires with a leap into the next.   It really doesn’t matter if you remember the names of who was married, who died, or whose daughter married the one-legged man.  Each chapter could stand on its own, and Hoffman will mark them somehow if you need to know – with a strange name like Azurine or an other worldly gift like shapeshifting.  This is Alice Hoffman, author of Practical Magic and Blackbird House.  You should expect strange, mystical, sometimes weird – but always fascinating.

Historically, Hoffman stays true to the time for each chapter – colonial hardships, Civil War trauma, the Depression, World War II – but never really lingers on the facts of that era; she uses history as a place marker.    Although I could suspend belief when reading about floating ghosts, bears becoming men, eels turning into women, red blossoms from yellow rose bushes, I found her purpose hard to follow and  her chapters seemed to stall in the middle of the book, some resembling children’s fairy tales – like Kate, the beauty, a kind friend to the monster beast poet in the woods.

Strong women sprinkle the narrative, beginning with Hallie Brady, the founding mother of the town, who communicates with bears and helps the small group of the town’s first settlers survive their first hard winter with bear’s milk.  Lots of messages here in stalwart women and brave children; many seem to reach a turning point into maturity at age ten; some are dead by 25.  No one character is revealed completely; rather, the book has a series of vignettes with a cast of characters – lots of heroes, heroines, and villains – not quite enough information about any of them.  Sometimes, the chapter would end with no resolution, until you’d find a grandson or niece in the next chapter.

Did I like it?  Alice Hoffman has a writing style that draws me in – simple, lyrical and soothing.  I can connect to her phrasing:

“Don’t worry, I’m not afraid of words…when you read, the time flies by…”

“A story can still entrance people even while the world is falling apart…”

and she talks of cake

The Red Garden is a change of pace – but not for everyone;  after I stopped trying to place the characters together and make sense of a plot, I lost my frustration.  When magic came into the stories, I was drawn in.  If you decide to read the book – like other Hoffman books –  just go with her flow and believe whatever she tells you.

And the red garden that can only grow bloody red flowers and vegetables in red dirt? It’s mystery from the beginning of the book returns in the next-to-the-last chapter with that title, and all is revealed – sort of…

2 thoughts on “The Red Garden – Alice Hoffman

  1. I’ve enjoyed the few Hoffman books I’ve read and hope to get through her backlist someday!

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