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Books: Alice Hoffman's 'The Red Garden' reviewed by Anne Trubek

By Anne Trubek
Friday, January 28, 2011; 11:20 PM

Alice Hoffman's "The Red Garden" is a dreamy, fabulist series of connected stories set in Blackwell, Mass., a small town in the Berkshires. As we learn in the first story, "The Bear's House," feisty Hallie Brady founded Blackwell, originally named Bearsville, in 1750. Hallie, unlike the other settlers felled by the winter's cold, was unafraid. She kept families alive by stealing her husband's boots and gun and hunting in the woods, where she spent many happy, freezing nights in a bear's den. She loved that bear and the wild mountains. When the other settlers warmed up and established a small village, Hallie missed her forest. She often "gazed out the window, as if there was someplace she wanted to be, some other life that was more worth living." In her civilized sorrow, she gardened and created the curious patch of ground that gives the book its title.

Hallie is the first of many women in "The Red Garden" who desire something found only outside Blackwell. The subsequent stories tell of more such women. Most are accompanied by a date: "The Year There Was No Summer" takes place in 1816, "The River at Home" in 1863, "The Truth About My Mother" in 1903 and "The Red Garden" in 1986. As the decades and centuries pass, women disappear, pine for the wild or die young. Some stay in town resigned to a life of constant longing. As one character says at the end of her tale, "I already knew I would never get what I wanted."

Sound bleak? Don't worry. Individual tragedies are offset by Hoffman's penchant for fairy-tale syntax and events. The extraordinary happens daily in Blackwell: Men revert to a wild state, women become eels, trees bloom in the snow, and a ghost in a blue dress calls from the river's edge. Hoffman's consciously simple style transforms people's pain into mythic parable. The morals of these stories are satisfying, particularly the endings, which add just the right combination of finality and resonance: "She was the town schoolteacher and the love of his life," one narrator concludes. "I was the girl who had nearly drowned, but had managed to save myself instead, in the year I turned ten." But elsewhere, when describing places and people, Hoffman's straightforward prose is too pat: A character "didn't feel the cold, perhaps because he was burning up with ideas."

The author of two earlier story collections and a number of best-selling novels for adults and young people, Hoffman has developed her own brand of magical realism. Lulling and thought-provoking, she conjures soothing places where readers, like the children to whom we tell fairy tales, can learn with pleasure. Famous people from history stop by Blackwell, and their unlikely visits seem no more implausible than a woman becoming an eel.

"The Red Garden" can also be read as a narrative of nation-building. A small New England town makes a good lens through which to view American history and its codependent relationship with nature: First, the eels feed the citizens, and then they become material for industry in the form of eelskin boots, only to be replaced later by leather. Meanwhile, the eels, so plentiful in the 18th century, are scarce by the 20th, when hippies set up a communal farm in the apple orchard.

The wars, illnesses, trends and events that structure this novel - the Civil War, the Depression, World War II - should add a background of historical authenticity. But some of the stories are as unlikely as a garden that turns all flowers red. Blackwell opens a history museum in the 1860s, when few such museums existed. An earnest WPA writer, Ben Levy, visits Blackwell to record tall tales. Levy is a mild-mannered Jew who graduated from Yale in the 1930s when few Jews attended the Ivy League school, and he drinks with his friends at the Plaza's Oak Room. Such a figure would have been unlikely, yet Hoffman does not remark on this. The omissions are notable, too: Hoffman addresses the Civil War and its horrors but not slavery.

These historical anachronisms make the novel's use of enchantment unsettling. But perhaps trying to figure out if this history could have happened is playing the wrong game. "A story can still entrance people even while the world is falling apart," Hoffman writes in "The Fisherman's Wife," a story about gossip during the Depression. These tall tales, with their tight, soft focus on America, cast their own spell.

bookworld@washpost.com

Trubek is the author of "A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses."

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