Occasionally, serendipity strikes the reviewing process. I started reading Andrea Hairston's novel Redwood and Wildfire because I'd met her at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts this year, where she was the scholar guest of honor. This led me to request her latest novel from Strange Horizons when it came up for review. I picked up Michael Crummey's Galore on my iPhone because I heard his interview on NPR, and I've long been curious about Newfoundland—one of my all-time favorite bands is based there (Great Big Sea). I often read multiple books in parallel, especially a printed book and an eBook since they’re convenient to read at different times, and these two happened to come up together. Before long I started noticing interesting resonances between the two books, and thus this combined review was born.
Galore and Redwood and Wildfire don't share much on the surface level, but they are both historical novels, and their time periods overlap. Redwood and Wildfire is a story tightly focused on protagonists Redwood, a young black woman who grows up in Georgia and makes her way to Chicago, and Aidan Wildfire, a slightly older man who is half Irish and half Seminole Indian and who follows her to the North. Most of the action of the book takes place in the first decade of the twentieth century. Galore is focused on a community instead of a specific character. It depicts the two halves of this community, neighborhoods known as Paradise Deep and The Gut, over about a century of time, ranging from the early nineteenth century to World War One. Technically the two books overlap in time, but they may as well be describing different planets.
Redwood and Wildfire is a book full of intensity. Both main characters are vivid and often tormented. Hairston richly describes the lush landscape of Georgia, with its run-down plantations (formerly staffed by slaves) and (to most) impenetrable swamps. The novel opens with Redwood's family fleeing from a lynch mob which eventually kills her mother. Aidan is the one to find the body and he treats it with reverence, although he is haunted by the fact that he (a teenager at the time) couldn't save her. Fast-forward ten years or so, and Redwood is a maturing woman who is coming into real magical powers, much the way her mother did. Aidan is a barely-functional alcoholic who ruins two marriages through his drunken abuse. Yet, together they can harness great power—in an early scene, Redwood captures the power of a thunderstorm, and this tempestuous force is referenced throughout the book. A captured and barely-contained storm is an apt metaphor for Redwood's character as she grows and learns to control both herself and her power. The narrative makes clear that Redwood and Aidan are soulmates—she inspires him to sobriety, and her magic is stronger because of his belief in her. However, neither of them thinks of the other as a romantic partner because of the difference in their races.
Eventually Redwood is assaulted and raped by a powerful white man from her town, and although she kills him in self-defense (using the thunderstorm magic) she knows that she needs to get away as fast as possible. Aidan, once again unable to prevent harm coming to someone he loves, covers up the assault and killing and keeps the town from pursuing her Redwood. She joins a traveling musical group as a singer and eventually makes her way to Chicago. There we're introduced to the vibrant theatre scene that was booming in Chicago at that time, including a burgeoning film industry. After some years and the death of most of Redwood's family back in Georgia from an epidemic, Aidan takes Redwood's little sister and joins her in Chicago. There they feel freer to admit their feelings for one another, but they are still haunted by their traumas—Redwood's rape has led to her being unable to feel sexual pleasure with anyone, and Aidan is haunted by failure and guilt. They both join the film industry, with Redwood working chorus and "African savage" parts, and Aidan taking lead roles for "Noble Indian Savage." Eventually they turn to the growing black middle and upper class in Chicago (Redwood's sister-in-law is thoroughly Northern and upper class, and finds Redwood a little overwhelming, leading to some interesting tension) to fund a film by and for the black community. The redemptive and transformative power of drama and theatre is a key theme of this book, which makes sense given Dr. Hairston's background as a theatre director as well as an author and professor.
Galore in contrast is a cold, stark book. The scenery of remote, rural Newfoundland is barely described. Crummey uses several strategies to distance the reader from the events and characters, particularly the use of indirectly reported dialogue instead of traditional quotation marks. Even the most intense and dramatic experiences, from births and deaths to political and religious conflicts, are described in understated tones that reject melodrama, or almost any drama at all. The story focuses on the contrast between two extended families in the community: the relatively well-off Sellers, who live in Paradise Deep, and the Devines who live in The Gut. (Yes, those names are as allegorical as you'd suspect, and it's rather easy to see where the author's sympathy lies.) As the book progresses through the years, the family ties between them grow both stronger and more estranged. The book proceeds by recounting vignettes of different characters' relationships—marriages, affairs, births, deaths, rejections, etc. Meanwhile the religious and political history of Newfoundland marches on in the background, with conflicts between Protestants and Catholics stoked by visiting religious officials (the cluelessness of said officials often providing a much needed comedic note), and eventually the incredible losses suffered by the Newfoundland regiments that who fought in WWI.
Both of these books focus on the power that women have or can carve out for themselves in the midst of a society that officially grants them none. In Galore this is especially noticeable; while the main stock and trade of the Newfoundland life comes from the sea, the narrative point of view stays very close to shore. It is mentioned when the men head out to the Labrador for the sealing season, or when people sail to and from Europe, but the narrative almost never follows them there. Instead it stays with the domestic concerns of the inhabitants who stay in Paradise Deep and the Gut—that is to say, mostly the women. The central character of the first half of Galore is a woman known only as Devine's Widow. While her name would seem to grant her identity only through her dead husband, her arrangement of marriages, jobs, and healing presents a strong counter to the Seller family and their attempts to use and abuse the population. Likewise, Redwood inherited magic powers from her mother. She too uses this power for healing, and especially in Chicago this helps her integrate with the middle and upper class community of women's charities—the same women who will help her round up financing for her film. In neither case does this mean that the women have happy lives: Redwood is not able to save herself from rape or its psychological consequences; Devine's widow lives by herself in a cold, cold place with all the infirmities of age. And they are not the only women we see suffering: in both books there are many who die of disease, abuse, and (especially in Galore) childbirth. (Reading this while pregnant with my first child, I probably could have used a less exhaustive catalog of the number of ways pregnancy can kill a woman, frankly. However, the medical details that are sprinkled through the narrative are both fascinating and obviously the product of some first-rate research.)
In addition, Redwood and Wildfire shows the consequences of racial tension—lynchings, uneasy peace, segregation, and the arson of black businesses in Chicago. This is an element almost entirely lacking from Galore—there is no mention of any North American Indian population that may have lived on the island before colonization (although I understand that there were prior inhabitants), and the one black character is more of a novelty than a threat—although he still ends up living a fairly isolated life. Redwood and Wildfire is also notable for the fact that its spectrum of racial tension is more complicated than simply Black and White. Aidan's mixed-race heritage presents problems for both the black and white communities; there are class and geographical boundaries to overcome as well.
Another thing that struck me as particularly interesting is are the different structures of the two novels. Redwood and Wildfire is a novel of progress. Redwood moves forward in her life, taking control (exercising agency) to learn magic, get herself out of the South, achieve some success in Chicago, and eventually finance the film which represents the culmination of the book. Even Aidan, while taking a much less direct path and being less aggressive in taking control of his destiny, travels to a place where he can achieve more success in both life and love. Galore on the other hand is explicitly circular, with the ending hinting at a fantastic link back to the beginning. One feels that the characters are trapped in their small communities. One of the main sins of the Sellers family is to have ambition above their station, wanting to turn their town into something grander than the small fishing village it seems destined to be forever. Travel back to England or Europe is fraught with peril, and many who board ships back East don’t make it. Many who do make it end up returning to Newfoundland broken in various ways. Even getting involved in politics in the provincial capital of St. John's seems to be corrupting.
The two books treat their fantastic elements quite differently, but in a way I think this is also their core similarity: the magic, to the extent there is any, is almost the least important thing about them. It pales in comparison to the day-to-day struggles of the characters in both books. True, Redwood has some relatively flashy magic that she can use (although at great personal cost)—but she uses it wisely and (thus) sparingly. She accomplishes much more through sheer force of personality. In Galore there are a few elements that may be fantastic, but they are entirely backgrounded. One character, Judah, is a pale mute man who is pulled from the carcass of a whale. This could be fantasy, or possibly legend, or possibly fact—but the characters, being highly practical people, downplay his mysterious origins and simply find and/or make a place for him in their community. Likewise, there is a tree that may or may not have healing powers—certain children brought to the tree recover from their maladies. This could be healing magic, or superstition, or coincidence. Again, it's not something central to the book or the characters. In both novels, the most important thing is the way the characters use what they have and their individual personalities to find ways to live their lives and move forward.
These two historical novels about similar times are different in every way—yet they are both entirely effective at what they do. Redwood and Aidan Wildfire are sympathetic characters who are easy to root for, and their journeys takes us through landscapes and cultures that we may never have encountered otherwise. (Who knew there was a thriving film industry in Chicago before the first World War?) In contrast, Galore is a portrait of a very quiet, very reserved community of people who maintain their reserve even in the face of narrative attention. They are not going to engage in melodrama simply for the sake of the reader! And yet we still get the distinct flavor of this particular place and these particular (and peculiar) people. Even though the community and the narrative resists change, that feels right for that place and that time. Newfoundland does not have the same dynamic urges of a turn of the twentieth century Chicago. In both cases, the dynamics of the situation and the background landscape through which they unfold are well matched and well drawn. Through entirely different structures and strategies, in each case the reader emerges with greater understanding and empathy for a time period that is easily as distant and alien to us as any hundred-years-hence science fictional world.