Every once in a while you run across a book that offers a different perspective on an old subject. Jonathan Odell's The Healing is just such a book. Although not particularly long at 350 pages, the novel covers a good deal of ground and brings to light a number of important issues.
Granada Satterfield was born a slave but found her way to "Freedomland" through the help and teachings of Polly Shine, a healer of her people. In the 1930s, Gran Gran (as she's called now), still lives on the old Mississippi plantation, though her black neighbors rarely seek her medical advice anymore. Her isolation is broken when Violet, newly orphaned, is left on her doorstep, badly in need of healing. To win the young girl's trust, Gran Gran tells her stories of the months she spent with Polly Shine, learning to be a healer and a midwife while struggling with discovering her individuality. Only after the old woman and the child have shared their histories can the true healing take root.
Odell gives Gran Gran two voices: that of a capable, lonely adult in the twentieth century and that of a naive young slave in the years before the Civil War. Thus when Gran Gran talks about the time that Polly Shine was brought to the plantation and all the changes that ensued, it is from the perspective of a child, without benefit of hindsight. And in fact such dualities are recurrent throughout The Healing.
Besides the obvious contrasts between the comfortable lives of the house slaves and the total misery of the swamp slaves are more subtle differences in terms of self-identity and even physical health. Polly Shine was the first black healer any of the slaves on the Satterfield place had ever seen. Her power over the white master was utterly overwhelming to her people. The idea that a black person--and woman at that--could make demands and have them met (for medicines, for a hospital cabin) was almost incomprehensible, especially for the field hands.
For the house slaves, however, Polly was not a godsend. Those who worked in the big house felt blessed, barely recognizing the fact they had little control over their own lives. After all, the mistress and master confided in them and fed them well. Some dared believe they were friends with the white folk. Polly's presence was like a mirror, reflecting back their true subservience and dependency.
For twelve-year-old Granada, Polly Shine was the hammer that shattered her world. The parentless girl was forced to assess her changing situation all on her own. And as most adolescents, Granada could not see the bigger picture, could not understand the possibilities of the future.
Although the principal theme of The Healing is the meaning of freedom, Odell also captures the psychological effects of slavery, the yearning to belong somewhere, and need for self-respect. You'll think about dignity, insanity, education, medicine, folk knowledge, prejudice, and the importance of remembering. You'll ache to tell the girl Granada the things she'll understand only when she's Gran Gran and only after she revisits the pivotal moments of her life through the stories she shares with Violet.
Odell's flawed and believable characters will find permanent places in your heart and mind. The impact of Gran Gran's story is difficult to write about without giving away the surprises and the unfolding of the plot. The Healing is unique in the group of historical novels about the transition from slavery to freedom. Polly Shine is a character everyone must meet.
I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Random House Audio; 13 hr, 15 min), narrated by Adenrele Ojo. Not only is Ojo's performance unforgettable but the author's note at the end is a special treat. My review of the audiobook will be available on the AudioFile magazine website.
In the following video Jonathan Odell talks about what influenced him to write the novel.
Published by Random House / Nan A. Talese Books, 2012
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