Sunday, March 13, 2011

Dear Alice Hoffman, Where is Blackwell?

I simply HAVE to know! It sounds suspiciously like the little town of Becket, Massachusetts; a town I failed to appreciate when I was there because I was at such a low point in my life. Seeing it through the eyes of others, though, it takes on a whole new life. Yes, I've been  in Florida for almost thirty years now, but I do still have a soft spot for my home in the Berkshires, especially when I revisit it with Don who sees only the Norman Rockwell aspects of it.

The Red Garden is a novel in linked vignettes that trace the lives of the settlers and their offspring in the Berkshire hills town of Blackwell. It is certainly one of Hoffman's finest, filled with the magical realism that we've come to expect from this most imaginative woman. I often feel that she's laying bare her soul in every book she writes.

Ms. Hoffman's novels often catch us unaware because they deal with the mundane aspects of everyday life. Her books  focus on death but not in a depressing or negative way. Rather, she addresses life and death as the naturally occurring happenings that they are, a center piece of small town life.

Love and marriage, couplings and uncouplings, unfulfilled or secret passions are also at the heart of an Alice Hoffman novel. I suspect that she is an incurable romantic. There's not an ounce of cynicism on display - not an easy task in this day and age.

The women in Blackwell are glorious creatures, beginning with the founder, one tough gal named Hallie Brady, who helped the first settlers make it through a rough winter on the mountain, who had a magical affinity for bears, and who propagated the red garden, one of the threads that ties the stories together over two centuries of history, war, and depression.

Some residents of Blackwell can't wait to get away while others can't imagine living anywhere else. Strangers arrive, stay for a while, skulk out of town in the night, often leaving a legacy behind, like the pastries and cakes named for emotions or the legend of the eels in the river and the mysterious woman who may have actually been one.

One woman escapes an abusive relationship in New York City and, with her daughter, lands in Blackwell with an entirely fictional history. Locals gossip but they eventually accept. That's the beauty of a town like Blackwell. A group of actors passing through ignite a fire in the belly of a young woman who doesn't know herself. A loyal dog refuses to leave the gravesite of his owner, pining through grueling winters and long, languid summers.

And the red garden continues to color all that is planted there, be it lilacs or greens. This gorgeous novel infiltrates your heart and brain and lingers there long after that last page is read. I'll have the opportunity to thank Ms. Hoffman in person next week.

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