The pre-Civil War South is beautifully rendered in Jonathan Odell's The Healing, its sure sense of time and place enhanced by believably drawn characters and their stories. Master Ben Satterfield's plantation has been ravaged by cholera. He refused to have his daughter treated for a "slave disease," so she died, and his opium-addicted wife, Amanda, will make him pay for this omission for the rest of his life. On the day her daughter dies, she takes a newborn slave from its mother, names the girl Granada and, taking vengeance against Ben, keeps her as another pet (alongside a monkey named Daniel Webster). Granada is kept close at hand, dressed in the late daughter's clothes, as the Satterfields become laughingstocks to their friends.
His wife's mental state and another plague sweeping the plantation cause Master Ben to purchase--for the outrageous sum of $5,000--a woman named Polly Shine, reputed to be a healer. He gets much more than he bargained for. Polly is a force of nature. The moment she arrives, she singles out Granada to live with her in the "hospital" Ben has built, insisting that the young girl has "the gift." Granada doesn't want any part of Polly or her hospital, being perfectly happy to dress in silk, dine out of Aunt Sylvie's fine kitchen and enjoy special privileges. Her wishes are not considered; she becomes Polly's shadow, learning to keep still, watch and listen.
Granada, 70 years later, is Gran Gran, and begins recounting past history to calm an abandoned child who has been brought to her care. The power of story looms large as Gran Gran recalls the influence Polly had on the plantation and its white and black occupants. Polly understood freedom and knew that the plantation slaves had no idea of what it meant or how to achieve it. She does, indeed, heal bodies and souls; insists on improved housing and diet for the slaves; and assists at the births of more "stock" for Master Ben. That isn't all she does, though, and the way she accomplishes her ends is at once horrifying, compelling and too clever for words.
Jonathan Odell finds the right words, using the language of the day, its idiom and its music to great advantage in a compelling work that can stand up to The Help in the pantheon of Southern literature. --Valerie Ryan
Shelf Talker: A plantation owner purchases a reputed healer who unexpectedly influences generations of slaves and free people.