Afia Atakora | United Kingdom/Ghana
As difficult as it is to read books that focus on slavery, my interest in these narratives has been for the opportunity to learn about as many aspects of the slave experience as I can. I feel that’s the only way to fully know what Africans and African Americans experienced and the mindset and manipulation that slave masters used to perpetuate their power. More importantly, I want to learn about the endurance, the defeat, and even the tragedy that fueled a slave person’s ambitions.
Conjure Women focuses on the lives of May Belle and her daughter Rue, slaves on a plantation in the South. May Belle is the plantation’s healer and teaches her daughter all that she knows, including the art of hoodooing, a form of superstitious magic that’s also called conjuring. The book moves between the 1850’s during slavery, to the 1860’s during the Civil War between the Northern and Southern states, and the early 1870’s just after slavery ended.
The story unfolds mostly through the eyes of Rue, taking the reader through her childhood learning from her mother, to her dangerous closeness with the plantation owner’s daughter Varina, to her life as a young woman who is now the former slaves’ healer after May Belle dies. The plantation is located in a very rural area, so much so that the former slaves continue to live in the old slave quarters, largely undisturbed by outsiders.
Though the new freedmen are largely respectful of Rue, as the story unfolds, she comes to be viewed with suspicion. Situations are beginning to happen within their little community that cause them to fear her and accuse of dealing with the dead. Rue herself is hoarding many secrets, some of which come to light with the arrival of a traveling preacher, who adds to the townsfolks’ suspicion of her. But the preacher, named Bruh Abel, has his own secrets that Rue eventually uncovers.
This book is a bit of a slow burn and at points some of the “magic” felt a bit overdone. Nevertheless, I found the book an intriguing read because Atakora clearly did her homework in understanding the trajectory of historical events, but also, she weaves a compelling tale that includes medicinal knowledge and slave folklore.