In 2011, Washington writer Dolen Perkins-Valdez published “Wench,” an unsparing look at the brutal relationships between Southern plantation owners and the slaves they kept as mistresses. She captured the horrific treatment of these women even as they attempted to maintain their dignity. And now, in her second novel, “Balm,” she tells an equally moving story set in post-Civil War Chicago.
When the Civil War ended and former slaves were able to travel, many of them migrated north in search of work in cities where communities of emancipated blacks were thriving. Perkins-Valdez brings together three memorable characters who, if the War Between the States had not taken place, never would have come together.
Madge is a free-born black woman who leaves her emotionally shut-down mother in rural Tennessee and heads to Chicago to start a new life. Descended from a family of healers, she plans to use her skills to support herself and help others. “She wanted to know what this newfound freedom had in store for a colored woman.”
Madge starts out as a street performer, mesmerizing crowds by immersing her hands in fire without getting burned. She is noticed one day by Sadie, who had traveled to Chicago two years earlier to live with her new husband — only to learn on her arrival that he’d been killed.
Sadie hires Madge to be her maid, and eventually they meet Hemp, a former slave from Kentucky in search of his wife. She was sold off and lost to him before emancipation. Sadie, drowning in her own grief, is a gifted medium, and Hemp hopes she can tell him where to find his spouse.
Through these three damaged characters, Perkins-Valdez explores what Sadie describes as haunted people searching for a new life in “a nation of death.” Everyone has been touched by the war and is struggling to come to terms with its aftermath. Relief that the fighting is over has been replaced with confusion over how to move on.
This monumental task is personified in a doctor described as “more corpse than man.” He bought his way out of fighting and blames himself for the fact that his brother went off to war and was killed. As he roams Chicago, he can’t stop thinking about the lives that were lost. Chicago, he thinks, appears to be “a city drunk with profit, industry, the dizzying rise of lumber, grain, cattle, while faraway, men had died and their corpses lay rotted in fields.”
Madge and Sadie are the most richly imagined characters. After the Civil War, Americans embraced the spiritualist movement in hopes of contacting dead loved ones. Fake mediums abound, but Sadie, it seems, is the real thing. Her reputation spreads far and wide, and the brokenhearted seek the help of “the Widow,” as she is known, to communicate with those they’ve lost.
The emotional salve Sadie offers is juxtaposed with Madge’s ability to heal physical ailments. By laying her hands on the ill, she diagnoses their problems and treats them with herbs and roots. But despite their talents, Sadie and Madge can’t heal their own hearts or minds.
What Perkins-Valdez so astutely observes about the aftermath of any horrific event is that “the best healing balm was hope.” Madge’s timeless observation aptly applies to this country’s continuing struggles with racism and violence. And Madge speaks for this thoughtful novel’s grieving citizens when, by book’s end, she is “transformed into a person set to do something remarkable in the world.” She thinks, “I am sure enough American. This what Americans do. Make something out of nothing. Start over and make a new self.”
In gorgeous, compassionate prose, Perkins-Valdez continues our national conversation about people working together to heal our communities. Near the end of the novel, a woman watching Madge mashing ginger root in a bowl says, “It sure does take a lot of different ingredients to make a healing balm,” to which Madge replies, “Ain’t that the truth.”
Memmott frequently reviews books for The Washington Post.
On Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., Dolen Perkins-Valdez will be at Busboys & Poets, 2021 14th St. NW. On Friday at 7 p.m. she will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
For more books coverage, go to www.washingtonpost.com/books.
By Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Amistad. 272 pp. $25.99