Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

4 Stars

Conjure Women is an engrossing debut historical fiction novel that is set on a ruined plantation in the rural South and explores the lives of emancipated slaves struggling to survive in the years just after the Civil War. Magnificently written, brilliantly researched and based on historical records, the story is both brutal and heart-breaking, and richly imagined. It moves back and forth in time to tell the haunting story of Rue and Rue’s mother May Belle, and their struggles to stay alive from slavery time through emancipation on a plantation which is so remote that freedom doesn’t offer much change. With few resources and little knowledge of the outside world, most of the town’s occupants have remained on the land they used to work as slaves.

Rue is a reluctant midwife and occasional curse caster, a craft she learned from May Belle, and is a much sought after and trusted healer. But after Rue delivers a strange-looking baby that frightens the townsfolk, they begin to turn against her, especially after many other children fall ill and die. Rue's tinctures and medicines don’t heal them. She must be to blame. When an itinerate preacher comes to town offering salvation and healing for the sick, the townsfolk begin to whisper and shun Rue as a witch. Rue concocts a plan to save herself and the strange looking baby while caring for hidden mysteries that protect those she loves. Her secrets are life and death urgent. It couldn't get any worse but then some white settlers arrive with their white robes and crosses. The novel comes to a head when all the secrets come to light.

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