The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Balm’ is the perfect post-Charleston novel

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At the church I attended last Sunday, the pastor preached about Charleston. He spoke of the importance of knowing the history of violence against black churches and the black communities they served. And he talked about freedom as an ongoing process, something that required exercise and, in the best cases, mentoring. “Freedom is more than a [physical] state,” he said. “You don’t [just] need someone to take the chains off; you need him to teach you to live with them gone.”

The novel I finished reading yesterday, Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s “Balm,” had already been illustrating the importance of this. “Balm” is the story of a freeborn “healer” named Madge; Sarah, the young white widow she works for; and Hemp, a formerly enslaved carpenter obsessed with a possible reunion with his long-lost wife. “Balm” is set mostly in Chicago just as the Civil War is drawing to a close and each of its three main characters are contending with the idea of personal freedom.

Madge’s story is the most compelling, as she was born to a household matriarchy led by three sisters who made a modest living for themselves as healing practitioners. They soothe ailments with herbs and flora and shut themselves off from the outside world. Madge, the daughter of the middle, unwed sister, is considered part of that outside world, her father having abandoned the family before her birth. Feeling both rejected by and beholden to this triad of formidable women, Madge longs for a love and inclusion that eludes her lifelong, until finally she leaves her Nashville residence and sets off for the North. The sisters barely register her departure.

Madge first encounters Sarah on the street, while Madge is working as a street performer, sticking her hand into an open flame. Sarah, herself feeling a dearth of love in the dank new city to which had been summoned by a husband who died before she arrived, offers Madge a job in her kitchen. Madge reluctantly accepts, but not without inner conflict. Perkins-Valdez writes: “Two questions dogged her: How exactly does one go from being slightly free to being free free to being slightly free again? And what did these degrees of freedom have to with this hurt that refused to pass?”

Sarah is also familiar with the “degrees of freedom” Madge is examining. A suspicion plagues her: She thinks her father “sold” her to the much older man she met only twice before agreeing to marry. Though she never had to perform a single marital duty, and though her husband left her a sprawling residence and a significant financial inheritance, she still feels untethered. When she soon finds herself hearing the voice of a dead Yankee soldier, she is just lonely enough to embrace the sound. The soldier’s spirit begins to deliver messages through her, able as he is to communicate with other spirits of the dead. Thus begins a new business venture for Sarah: She becomes a medium known as the Widow.

It’s through her work that Sarah and Madge first meet Hemp, the mostly literally “freed” of the three. Born a slave, he is newly arrived in Chicago, having never lived or worked outside the borders of a plantation. As Hemp acclimates to his new life as a free man, he’s racked with guilt over the wife he lost. Annie, his betrothed, and her daughter were sold just before his plantation was raided. He fled to a soldiers’ encampment, asking after her all the while, to no avail. After a few months in Chicago, he’s desperate enough to attend one of Sarah’s seances to find out whether Annie has died.

Despite his compulsive attachment to the hope of reunion, Hemp and Madge strike up a friendship that constantly seems to teeter on the precipice of something more romantic. But Hemp can’t let go of his vows and his guilt. He is “free free,” but only slightly free — and it’s slowly driving him mad.

Reading Perkins-Valdez’s gorgeously written novel in the aftermath of Charleston lent the narrative uncanny immediacy. As South Carolina contends with its attachment to the Confederate flag in 2015, the characters in “Balm” remind us of what that flag flew to defend: the continuance of slavery. Hemp’s story gives us the most vivid ideas about slavery’s ravages: He’s haunted by a marriage that was never recognized as legal, his wife and her child sold off with little hope of his ever recovering them, yet he is the one who carries the guilt of losing them, as though he had even a modicum of say in the matter.

The mental, emotional and psychological repercussions of enslavement cannot be entirely shed — especially not when people are still murdering the descendants of slaves in the name of the Confederate flag. It’s difficult to see all the progress black Americans have made over the generations when racism and inequality are still as entrenched as they are. What do these degrees of freedom have to do with the hurt that refuses to pass?

The novel’s title has many meanings. Both Sarah, with her messages to the living from their dead loved ones, and Madge, with her ability to intuit through touch which herbs may cure the ill, are able to provide comfort to their neighbors. But each also finds her own balm, her own way back to “free free” through the forging of new relationships and the letting go of past resentments. Sarah has to forgive her father; Madge has to reconcile with her mother and aunts. Hemp, for his part, also has to let go in order to move forward. And by the end of the book, it’s gratifying to see how he does this. It’s harder to let go in real life. Too many tragedies rise to the fore, hearkening back to the history these characters lived through. But the nation certainly needs its own balms now. Perhaps there’s still hope that we’ll find them.