Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Published May 2015 by Armistad
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours

Publisher's Summary:
The Civil War has ended, and Madge, Sadie, and Hemp have each come to Chicago in search of a new life.

Born with magical hands, Madge has the power to discern others’ suffering and ease it, but she cannot heal her own damaged heart. To mend herself and continue to help those in need, she must return to Tennessee to face the women healers who rejected her as a child.

Sadie can commune with the dead, but until she makes peace with her father, she, too, cannot fully engage her gift.

Searching for his missing family, Hemp arrives in this northern city that shimmers with possibility. But redemption cannot be possible until he is reunited with those taken from him.

In the bitter aftermath of a terrible, bloody war, as a divided nation tries to come together once again, Madge, Sadie, and Hemp will be caught up in an unexpected battle for survival in a community desperate to lay the pain of the past to rest.

My Thoughts:
After reading Perkins-Valdez's 2010 Wench (my review here), I knew that I wouldn't hesitate to pick up whatever she wrote next. So I didn't when I was offered Balm for review and I was certainly not disappointed. Her writing is so beautiful, she pulls you in immediately as Madge first discovers a rapidly growing Chicago:
"Men behind wooden carts hawking fruits and vegetables in pitched voices. Hackneys, carriages, teams of horses flying madly by in all directions, leaving behind a cloud of dust so thick she could barely see. Signs advertising businesses who names she could not read. The Glance of a woman leaning out of a window. A grand building with wide stone steps leading up to some unimaginable heaven. A new word - opera...opera...opera - melting on her tongue. Tree-bordered boulevards. The South Side avenues. The soft glow of gas streetlights. Horsecars lined with narrow benches and shoving crowds, the bolts creaking so loudly she feared the animal would break free and leave the people in the contraption being. Five flags waving grandly from the top of a building. The crunch of grit between  her teeth, dust rising through her nostrils."
As with Wench, in Balm Perkins-Valdez creates memorable characters who are struggling to find their place in this new world, a world were former slaves are learning how to live with a freedom tempered by painful memories and ongoing prejudice, a world where there are so many families trying to make new lives with the void left by the thousands who died in the Civil War. Madge, Sadie, Hemp and Michael, a doctor who comes into their lives with his own pain, are all in need of their own healing balm. It is a painful journey filled with grief, guilt, and a deep need for forgiveness.

As one characters says to Madge near the end of the book, "It sure does take a lot of different ingredients to make a healing balm." "Ain't that the truth," Madge said. Perkins-Valdez has, in Balm, given readers a story of hope, healing and coming together of community, a story that resonates in the present day as we continue to struggle with racial divisions.

Thanks to the ladies of TLC Book Tours for including me in this tour. For other opinions, check out the full tour.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Wench. Her fiction has appeared in the Kenyon Review, StoryQuarterly, StorySouth, and elsewhere. In 2011 she was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction. She was also awarded the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. She teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine. A graduate of Harvard and a former University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA, Dolen Perkins-Valdez lives in Washington, D.C., with her family.

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