One of my more recent goals has been to read more “new” releases, particularly from debut authors and authors of color. I ordered Conjure Women because it ticked off several of my boxes. It is a debut novel by an author of color, but more importantly, it’s the type of book my shelves crave: magical realism, historical fiction, strong female leads, stunning cover.
Afia Atakora’s mesmerizing debut novel, published in April of 2020, has been brushed with magic but the magic rests just on the fringe of the story. Personally, I would have liked to have seen more of it, but that storyline was May Belle’s, the magic was May Belle’s, never Rue’s.
“Miss May Belle had used to turn coin on hoodooing. As a slave woman she’d made her name and her money by crafting curses. More profit to be made in curses than in her work mixing healing tinctures. More praise to be found in revenge than in birthing babies.”
Rue believed in the magic; her mother just never taught her. As such the magic rides the edges of the story, like the runaway slave Miss May Belle turned into a bird so she could escape North or Rue’s daddy, turned into a tree when he was hanged for the false words of a white woman, or the joinder through a topsy turvy doll, crafted lovingly by Miss May Belle, of Rue and the Master’s daughter, Varina. It kisses the pages, just enough to remind you it sits, just under the surface of everything, like secrets tossed in the water.
Therein lies Rue’s power; she’s the keeper of secrets and stories. As a child, her mother had used her to glean information from throughout the plantation. This information was used in both the “hoodoo-ing” and the healing. While her mama didn’t teach how to conjure, her mother did teach her healing. After the war, with a red-headed secret held fast in the church, Rue took care of her people. She birthed the babies and cared for the sick. Forever tied to Varina due to the conjure, she could not leave.
When she births a mysterious child, buried with a caul, with strange eyes, she knows one of her secrets has floated to the top of that river where she had buried him – a different type of magic emerges. Superstition has long addressed the caul in childbirth, and Rue quickly tells Sarah it means the child will have the gift of second sight. Of interesting note, seamen believe it will protect one against drowning as long as it is kept. This very British superstition grabs hold of this very African superstition and the two link – much like the bloodlines that created the baby in question, a baby Rue names Bean because of his little black eyes. The caul is burned and Bean is terrified of water. (There is so much that can be said about Bean, the caul, and the water.)
Midwifery, conjuring, and healing are oft thought to be “women’s work” and the novel gets its heart from Rue, May Belle, Ma Doe, and Varina. But a smooth-talking preacher man, light enough he could pass as white if he so wanted, threatens to unravel the fabric of their lives.
Bruh Abel comes to town every year on his way down south. He thumps his Bible, winks at the women, and baptizes as many as he can – with his hands finding themselves in questionable places. But it’s different this time.
“She’d known him for what he was then. His was a clear-water cure sweetened with nothing more than clever words, a con man’s type of conjure.”
Rue is forced to fight for herself, to hold fast to her mother’s healing and her mother’s words, as Bruh Abel encourages her people to toss aside the past and find their faith in religion while he collects their coins. Suddenly an outcast and deemed a witch, Rue does what she has to protect herself, her secrets, her people, and Bean – just as she’s done her whole life.
Despite many differences, Conjure Women called to mind Sarah Gertrude Millin’s God’s Stepchildren, which was published in 1924. They are very different novels that were published in very different times and set in very different locations, but the interracial aspects (one through slavery and one through “faith”) the treatment of color, and the use of God had the two swirling in my mind and had me wishing I still did things like present papers. I haven’t thought of Millin’s novel in a long time – I may need to reread it.
As far as Afia Atakora’s debut goes, Conjure Women is a roaring success. It is beautifully written, cleverly told, magical, and heartbreaking in its reality. There are some hiccups, particularly as we reach the close where the story could have been a bit tighter as the conjure came undone, but I strongly recommend it. It’s an excellent example of magical realism removed from Latin America, and that’s an important aspect in understanding the fluidity of the genre. Conjure Women is a brilliant novel to break down and look at the tools the author is using to create something quite literary. I know many of you don’t care so much about the building blocks and dissection of a work – you are just looking for a good read – and Conjure Women would also fit that need.