Conjure Women, by Afia Atakora

Trigger warning for rape.

There can’t be many things more frustrating than people who can’t or won’t take help. When someone as clever and educated as Rue, the protagonist of Afia Atakora’s novel, Conjure Women, tries to help her community of freed people in the post-Civil War South, they fear her. Worse, when a preacher comes with a new belief system, Rue becomes a monster to people she’s healed and helped birth. They stop listening to her and refuse her cures, much to her annoyance. But, to complicate things, we see Rue make some high-handed mistakes alongside her good deeds. This is a novel that keeps us on our toes because we have to wait for the very end to make up our minds about Rue.

The village where Rue lives is a strange one. They are isolated from any neighboring communities. After freedom came, they stayed on the plantation where they worked—the white “masters” had apparently died or run off. Rue, as the only one who has any medical knowledge and who can curse or bless as well as her legendary mother, is a de facto leader of the unnamed village. But there are hints that their peaceful isolation is coming to an end. First, a child is born with unnerving black eyes, white skin, and a complete caul. Next, Bruh Abel appears with all the fire of a preacher determined to save every single soul he meets. Lastly, there are rumors of white men wearing white hoods doing terrible things to any Black person they catch. Rue is caught in the middle of this. Her self-appointed duty to these people, who she grew up with when they were still enslaved, won’t let her walk away.

The frustration that Rue feels when her people start to turn their backs on her—she refuses to be baptized—is matched by our knowledge that Rue is making mistakes. For me, Conjure Women turned into a story about the pitfalls of being the person who thinks they know is best, but is wrong. She believes she’s doing the right thing. We know she’s not. The novel moves back and forth in time, showing us a parade of people who think they know best. Rue’s former “owners” thought they knew best for the people they enslaved. (The white’s attitudes to their slaves are horrifically illustrated by a minstrel show.) Bruh Abel thinks he knows best, but prayer is no cure when a virulent disease sweeps through the village. Both the malevolent and the well-intentioned people who know better in Conjure Women had me wondering what I argue is best for other people*.

I spent so much time reserving judgment while I read Conjure Women that I’m having a hard time deciding if I liked it or not—at least until she started letting go of things she’d held on to so tightly for years. I liked Rue’s humanity and her depth of knowledge about plants. I loved the way she took no crap from anyone. On the other, this book meanders and takes a long time to get rolling, before ending abruptly. I also didn’t care for any of the other characters, which made it hard to get into the book. But then, I also liked its originality. It’s unlike any other novel about slavery I’ve ever read. But then I wished we had learned more about Rue’s root work…On and on, back and forth. I’m really not sure what to conclude about this novel.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

* But not vaccines. Vaccinate yourselves, people. Oh, and health care is a right. Capitalism is evil. And James Joyce was a literary con artist. Fight me.

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