Book Review│Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

cover174871-mediumAfia Atakora’s Conjure Women is a richly detailed narrative that takes us back to the pre and post Civil War South through the eyes of Miss May Belle and her daughter, Miss Rue. The chapters alternate viewpoints between the two women to showcase how different and still yet similar life is for women of color in the South during and after the war when freedom really didn’t mean that these women were in fact free.

For Miss May Belle, it is 1854. She is a practicing midwife and conjurer. Her special talents give her a life with benefits that she wouldn’t have had other wise or as she puts it,  “Hoodoo is black folks currency.” Other slaves seek her out for help and at times, so do the wealthy white men who are too embarrassed by an ailment to seek out a doctor. Rue is young and growing up under Miss May Belle’s watchful eyes, learning her secrets and seeing first hand what conjuring can do to a person’s body and soul.

The two live in a large plantation owned by the prosperous Marse Charles and his daughter, Varina. His young daughter becomes a playmate for Rue who is eager to act out her rebellions which usually ends in punishment for Rue. Miss May Belle knows that her talents afford her freedoms, but that she is still a slave and as such must adhere to the unspoken rules of the white-men who control her life. She makes sure Rue learns her place while learning the ways of hoodoo and conjuring to ensure that Rue keeps her place with Marse Charles long after she is gone.

For Rue, it is 1867 and the war is over. Her mother is long gone and she has taken over the hoodooing that Miss May Belle had abandoned after a horrific tragedy. Rue is intimately involved in many of the townspeople’s lives as she has delivered every baby since the war. When a fair skinned, black eyed child is born the town views the arrival more as a curse than a blessing and the praise they used to give Rue turns to criticism as suspicion begins to swirl. Suspicion is only heightened with the arrival of a preacher to town who is bent on ruining Rue because the bible marks her as impure and evil with her hoodoo and magic. However, is the preacher all that pure and truthful himself? Rue’s story is filled with suspicion and conniving scheming that fuels much of the conflict in her story.

Fear overtakes the town and trust is lost. Rue is overwhelmed by the burden of the secrets and magic that she carries. Will she ever truly be free or will she be forever bartering for other people’s well-being while sacrificing her own? Ultimately, what is the price of her freedom?

Afia Atakora’s Conjure Women is a fantastic debut novel that makes Atakora an author to watch. Her poetic prose and use of magical realism make the details of this novel come to life. You become immersed in her world–a fantastic read that brings the world of slavery and life before reconstruction to life.

Book Information

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora is scheduled to be released on April 7, 2020 from Random House Publishing with ISBN 9780525511489. This review corresponds to an advanced electronic galley that was supplied by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Book Review│The Undertaker’s Assistant by Amanda Skenandore

undertakerAs Effie explains when she’s asked how she can be an undertaker’s assistant, ““The dead can’t hurt you. Only the living can.” So sets the mood for this wonderfully dark, pervasive novel set amongst a strenuous time in our nation’s history. Effie Jones is a former slave living and working in New Orleans, a place as dark and mysterious as much of the mood of this novel is. Living now, as a freedwoman, Effie is navigating her new life and her return to life in the South as she works for a white undertaker who does not share her skills that she acquired from a Union soldier and is fighting the urge to rekindle her old life and the ties she lost to her own family.

New Orleans

While slavery is now a piece of the past, the racial tensions that are building in New Orleans are not. Effie is among many who are now living as freed people in the southern city and for many, this is not always acceptable. For Effie, there is also an overbearing sense of loss both in her identity and within her ties to her family that was lost in the upheaval of slavery. It is within her past that Effie will also find her new beginnings.

New Orleans serves as a wonderful backdrop for such a turbulent time because New Orleans is itself dark and turbulent. The city really lends itself to the morose overtones that dominate much of the novel. Together, the setting and the political battles that are igniting through the racial tensions created by the end of slavery lend to a well-charted plot and inevitable end.

Racial Tension

The tension between white and black citizens exists throughout the book. People such as Effie are struggling to find their place in the world outside of slavery.  Effie has two encounters with a charismatic state legislator named Samson Greene, and a beautiful young Creole, Adeline that slightly change her course. Up until then, Effie stayed distant from the other girls in her boarding house and had no interest in getting involved in the politics of the city. However, her chance encounters change Effie and bring her into the world of activism and politicism which leads her into her own search for the family that she had long buried in her memories.

The Undertaker’s Assistant by Amanda Skenandore is as much a wonderfully written historical fiction piece as it is the story of one woman’s coming of age in a turbulent part of our nation’s story. The novel is a bit slow in the beginning, but once you get into the meat of the novel, you become invested in the political turmoil, the mystique of the city of New Orleans and in Effie and the characters that she meets and encounters along her own journey.

Book Information

The Undertaker’s Assistant by Amanda Skenandore is scheduled to be released on July 30, 2019, from Kensington Books with ISBN 9781496713681. This review corresponds to an advanced electronic galley that was received from the publisher in exchange for this review. To be linked to special pre-order pricing, click the link above!