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The Red Garden


The Red Garden

Alice Hoffman is a quiet sort of writer, not known for showy
prose, whirlwind plots, or doorstop blockbusters. But what she
does, she does very well --- create memorable images and convey
moments of emotional intensity using spare prose and enviable
stylistic restraint. In a single sentence, she can create a world
or destroy it utterly, the apparent simplicity of her prose belying
its emotional power, which often sneaks up on her audience unawares
as they read her novels. For it turns out that in addition to being
a talented observer and a gifted stylist, Hoffman is a masterful

This is especially true in her latest book, THE RED GARDEN,
which is a collection of linked short stories that tell the history
of fictional Blackwell, Massachusetts, from its founding in 1750 to
the late 20th century. This is a very small town indeed, meaning
that the same handful of last names surfaces from story to story
and that the same handful of tall tales, gossip and legends
persists from generation to generation. Careful readers (and with
prose this lovely, should there be any other kind?) will see how
these myths grow out of history, and how people's stories shape
place as much as geography or historical events do.

Blackwell was known in its earliest years as Bearsville, due to
the large population of bears dotting nearby Hightop Mountain. The
opening story, about the earliest settlers’ salvation by a
young woman named Hallie Brady, sums up many of the novel’s
themes and motifs: a plucky but melancholy young woman who longs
for love and finds it only in the most surprising places, an
intense but uneasy relationship between humans and the natural
environment, an undercurrent of magic and mystery, a legacy of loss
and sorrow. These motifs arise again and again, taking on the force
of myth as they repeat themselves through the generations.

Alice Hoffman is often known as a magical realist, and her work
in THE RED GARDEN is no exception. Ghosts --- whether real or
imaginary --- surface again and again, their stories rooted in
actual history, their recurrence a reminder that stories outlive
their tellers. Hoffman relies at times on familiar archetypes ---
the story of the seal wife (or in this case, the eel wife), for
example --- but in a way that works perfectly with the very
particular western Massachusetts environment she has created. And
then there's the red garden of the novel's title, where the soil is
red as blood and everything that's planted there also grows
blood-red, a symbol of the uncomfortable but inevitable
intertwining of nature and culture, of love and loss.

The emotional heft of THE RED GARDEN can sneak up on you, as
Hoffman conveys awful incidents, intense passions and haunting
images in the simplest, most matter-of-fact prose. But this seeming
simplicity, this careful restraint, also highlights the truths she
conveys and the wonders that inhabit each page of her marvelous
stories. "A story can still entrance people even while the world is
falling apart," writes Hoffman. Blackwell seems at times a town
outside history, even when history arrives (as it does from time to
time) on these people's doorsteps. Their stories, however ---
timeless yet timely --- will entrance readers from all times and

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 28, 2011

The Red Garden
by Alice Hoffman

  • Publication Date: January 25, 2011
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Crown
  • ISBN-10: 0307393879
  • ISBN-13: 9780307393876