Many New England towns are no doubt haunted by the spirits of their founders and descendants. But few are imagined so lyrically as the one described by Alice Hoffman, a superb storyteller who crafts a series of interconnected tales in The Red Garden.
The town is Blackwell, Mass., which started out as Bearsville because of the role the animals play in the town's founding and evolution.
Hoffman first introduces us to Hallie Brady, a bold and no-nonsense young woman who lands in the wilds of Massachusetts through the ineptitude of her husband, whom she married before realizing he was little more than a common crook.
When a few families face sure starvation and death during a frigid winter, Hallie ventures out to provide for them. She goes into a cave where a hibernating bear unwittingly provides sustenance for Hallie and the young boy who has tagged along with her.
Hallie does what's needed and makes no apologies for behavior that the other settlers find odd. Indeed, she prefers their polite ostracism over social intercourse, spending more and more time alone in the woods and on Hightop Mountain. It's the mountain that helps define the people, and Hoffman takes care with her well-crafted portrait of the geography, from the Eel River to the dank caves and the valleys and fields.
After Hallie, Hoffman takes us on a tour of the years and the descendants of those original few families, who all encounter the spirits of the mountain and its first settlers.
Hoffman introduces us to a family whose young daughter drowns and to families decimated by war. But in each family, the thread of settler spirit weaves enough strength into the characters for them to survive. Each story is linked to one that precedes it, yet each stands on the strength of its own voice and action as Hoffman carries readers into the early 1800s, through the Civil War and on to Elvis Presley and beyond. This is a novel that succeeds as a whole, yet also stands on the strength of each piece.