There’s a scene in Rita Woods’s new book, The Last Dreamwalker, that I keep coming back to. Our heroine, Layla Hurley, a young artist, is traveling in South Carolina with her Aunt Jayne and her Aunt Therese. Layla is from DC and scarcely knows these aunts, scarcely knows this branch of her family. They’re the sisters of Layla’s caustic, emotionally distant, and recently deceased mother, Elinor. Layla reconnected with Aunts Jayne and Therese at Elinor’s funeral, and has traveled south with them to learn more about her mother, the Gullah Geechee community Elinor left behind, and the dangerous dual inheritance she has bequeathed to Layla.
The first part of that inheritance is an ability, passed from third daughter to third daughter, to walk in and reshape the dreams of others. The second part is Scotia Island, where Layla’s ancestors were enslaved and which has belonged to her family since the Civil War, despite a great deal of interest from comeyah—a Gullah term for newcomer—real estate developers. Layla is preparing to visit the island with her aunts, but has a moment’s hesitation about stepping onto a boat in order to sail there. Her Aunt Jayne tells her:
“It’s okay, sweetie… We been on the water since before we could walk. Your granddaddy was a oysterman, and his daddy before him. Men on both sides of this family been fishin’ and sailin’ these waters for more’n two hundred years. Women too.” (p. 88)
Shortly after this exchange, a jet from the local Marine base flies by. It’s a small moment, and hardly the most unusual image in a book packed with impressive dream sequences that manage to be equal parts trippy and humanistic. But I can’t think of a clearer, simpler encapsulation of the book’s central theme: past and present bleed into each other; any notion of separateness—between now and then, between us and our ancestors, between our waking aspirations and our most fevered dreams and memories—is a comforting fiction.
Woods won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award with her debut novel, 2020’s Remembrance, a multigenerational saga about women in four different eras using supernatural powers to resist slavery and reckon with loss. Dreamwalker also spans generations, but by grounding most of the action in coastal South Carolina and focusing the narrative on two eras and one family tree, Woods makes a story that stretches from the 1860s to the present day feel claustrophobic.
The Civil War storyline follows Layla’s ancestor Gemma, an enslaved Dreamwalker who lives on a decaying Scotia Island rice plantation with her three daughters. While rumors of escape and emancipation swirl, Gemma has little hope that victory for the North will improve conditions for her family. She plans to take care of that herself, walking in the dreams of the plantation’s ailing owner and persuading him to sign the island over to her and her descendants.
Gemma’s ultimate success is assured, since Layla finds herself in legal ownership of half of Scotia Island following Elinor’s death. The other half belongs to Charlotte, Elinor’s cousin. Charlotte lives alone on the island, and has grown bitter and paranoid since her estrangement from Elinor. She is a Dreamwalker herself, and has been using her abilities to ward off the real estate speculators and keep Scotia Island in the family. Threatened by Layla’s claim, Charlotte begins walking in her dreams as well, initiating a campaign of threats and violence. After her first dream encounter with Charlotte, Layla wakes up with a black eye and a ransacked room. The rest of Layla’s story follows her efforts to claim her inheritance, come into her power, and learn the family history that Elinor kept from her.
The rules of dreamwalking will be familiar to anyone who has enjoyed A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): violence inflicted in dreams, or objects taken from dreams, can cross into the waking world. In a nifty innovation, Woods also hints at the ways in which Dreamwalkers can attain new knowledge and skills. Her characters visit the dreams of others to learn how to knit, how to read, even how to code-switch.
In an essay about Black SFF writers, Woods names Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and Tina McElroy Ansa as particular favorites. In their work, she writes, “I recognized life as I knew it growing up: the smell of Royal Crown hair grease and a hot comb smoking on the stove on Saturday nights, vaseline slathered on ashy knees, black eyed peas for good luck on New Year’s Day. They wrote about life as I lived it every day.” Woods’s keen eye for the details of daily life is Dreamwalker’s biggest strength. She doesn’t write the kind of sprawling, protean dreamscapes you might see on The Sandman. Her dream sequences are collages of gently-used memories, concrete and tactile. Dead family members frequently appear in dreams, often to poignant effect, as in this passage:
Sometimes the dreams were nice: like when she followed Mr. Pryor to his grandmother’s house, watching from the shadows as the old woman sat humming in her rocking chair, shelling peas. Or when her grandfather taught her daddy how to catch fireflies in a jelly jar in the field behind their house in Michigan, even though he’d died when her daddy was still in college. (p. 14)
At other times, the same device is used to oppressive effect, as in a later dream sequence, in which Elinor’s specter presents Layla with an unusual gravestone rubbing:
It was not a rendering of the tombstone, not the dates or the small daffodil in the center of the headstone. Rather, it was a sketch of their family, roughly drawn but easily recognizable: Layla’s parents, her brothers, herself. And in the background, the vague outline of several other figures.
Her mother was watching her, no longer smiling. She forced the sketch into Layla’s hand.
“Family,” she said. (p. 161)
Woods displays a similar knack for the well-chosen detail in her depictions of the waking world. Layla associates her childhood home with “[t]he newspaper soggily perched in the Pryors’ bushes” (p. 11) and her old room with its coat of eggplant-colored paint. Woods makes especially deft, and frequent, use of sense memory. A half-forgotten house from childhood evokes the image of a pecan tree and the taste of pecan pie: “She remembered the explosion of the thick custard, the feel of the sugary nuts on the roof of her mouth” (p. 69). Layla’s aunts present her with an egg salad sandwich “the size of a toaster” because egg salad was Elinor’s favorite (p. 66). When searching for one character in the dream world, Layla hones in on “[t]he sweet smell of the hedge that surrounded her house” (p. 247).
The most vivid details Layla notices in the present tend to evoke memories of the past—either her own memories or those of dreamers she has visited. The pecans, for instance, are someone else’s memory, though Layla doesn’t realize that at first. There’s a slipperiness to dreamwalking, a danger of losing your ability to distinguish between waking and dreaming, yourself and another.
This slipperiness plays a tragic role in Gemma’s Civil War storyline. Gemma walks again and again in the dreams of her dying enslaver, pursuing a guarantee of property and security for her descendants. But this takes a brutal toll on her own mental health and on the safety of her immediate family. This parallels the escalating danger in the present-day storyline, as Charlotte’s dreamwalking threatens Layla, her aunts, and her brothers. Woods depicts this danger with visual panache: Gemma hanging clothes out to dry in the dead of night, a faceless white horseman, inexplicable sand, a handprint that gives off the overpowering smell of Lowcountry pluff mud.
Dreamwalking is a potent metaphor for the novel’s themes. In dreams, the dead aren’t really dead and the past isn’t really past. This is exhilarating and magical. It’s also disorienting and grimly fatalistic. Wood’s dream sequences juggle bold depictions of all of these feelings, and, most importantly, they immerse the reader in these complicated emotions.
Some of Woods’s exposition choices frustrated me at first. Layla’s family history is as dark and dramatic as a reader might expect: we learn about acts of murder and manslaughter, seductions, romantic rivalries, sundered friendships, and unexpected parentages. While we witness some of these revelations in dreams with Layla and Gemma, we also spend a good deal of time absorbing this information secondhand from characters in the waking world. Layla risks falling into passivity for much of the book’s first half, a recipient of information more so than an active investigator. The rules of dreamwalking are also subject to explanation, always by family members. This, too, frustrated me, because I felt that an abundance of explanation undermined the sense of disorientation and peril so effectively built up in the dream sequences. The characters are often in danger of getting lost in the dreams, but the reader is always kept just a little removed from that danger.
On the other hand, there’s ample thematic justification for all of this. The biggest cruelty Elinor visited on Layla was her silence about dreamwalking. As a child, Layla understood nothing of her own abilities, believing herself subject to unusually vivid dreams, sleepwalking, and possible mental illness. When we meet her as an adult, she’s using silence and anti-anxiety medication to preserve her sense of sanity. So Layla’s aunts aren’t simply delivering exposition. They’re restoring a family tradition, passing down knowledge that has been handed from mothers to daughters since their first ancestor was brought to Scotia Island. They’re also helping Layla to stay in her right mind. It’s no coincidence that Gemma, beginning to lose her grip on the waking world, recites her lineage in order to reorient herself:
Above her in the shadows, faces, memories, formed then melted away, her eyes playing tricks. Unconsciously, she stroked the space on her left wrist as she recited the lineage. “Lavender, third daughter of Gemma. Gemma, third daughter of Tuesday. Tuesday, third daughter of Nola, a seer from over to Africaland. Dreamwalkers.” (p. 97)
Lineage as a lifeline. It’s a moving and effective motif.
It’s also undeniably poignant to read Walker’s depiction of all the hard work it takes for a Black family in the US to acquire and retain real estate. Keeping some hard-won wealth in the family comes at a steep cost, from the supernatural danger of dreamwalking to the more quotidian terrors of hurricanes, gentrification, and the racial sleep gap. Dreamwalker benefits from an honest ambivalence about whether Scotia Island is worth all the sacrifices required to keep it.
There’s an ambivalence about family too, a growing awareness on Layla’s part that family members can be flawed and dangerous while still wanting love and a place to call their own. Learning more about Elinor leaves Layla with more questions than answers. Meeting Charlotte helps Layla come into her power, but it also prompts her to use dreamwalking as an instrument of harm. Even her aunts, sweet and folksy as they first appeared, turn out to be more pragmatic than they let on. Layla hasn’t made a mistake in seeking out her extended family, any more than Gemma made a mistake in trying to secure the rights to Scotia Island. But her journey into knowledge and power ends up feeling less like a triumph and more like a practical necessity, a waking up to a reality of life. As Aunt Jayne puts it, “Family always needs family, sugar. For one thing or ’nother” (p. 168).
The novel’s ending left me wanting more, in good ways and bad. Bad, because the book’s final chapters feature shocking character revelations that don’t have time to land, and raise ethical questions about dreamwalking that are left largely unexplored. What, for instance, are the consent implications of walking in the dreams of a romantic prospect?
But the longer I sit with Dreamwalker’s ending, the more its lack of closure seems like a feature, rather than a bug. If Layla has ventured to South Carolina in hopes of reaching some peace and understanding with Elinor, Woods has signaled all along that she’s probably doomed to failure. In a book that links memory to taste and smell, this brief passage, in which Layla goes through some of Elinor’s girlhood possessions, is highly telling:
She picked up an empty perfume bottle and held her nose close, hoping to catch a scent of the young Elinor. But there was nothing. (p. 126)
By the end of Dreamwalker, Layla has fought some of the same battles that Gemma and Elinor fought. She has learned about herself, her lineage, and the geography of dreams. But it’s unclear whether she will find the closure she’s seeking, or escape the patterns of harm and loss that have haunted her family for generations. That may be the point Woods is making. The past lives on in all of us, and continues to shape our present. We can acknowledge that past, even study it, but we may never fully understand it. The best we can hope for are old perfume bottles, family stories, the taste of pecans, faces glimpsed in dreams.