Monday, April 20, 2009


In Bloodroot (Berkley, 2001) Susan Wittig Albert has written a novel that probes the depths of generational family secrets through a multi-layered story of kinship bonds and lost loves. China Bayles, Albert's venerable protagonist of (currently) seventeen published novels and many short stories, has left the relatively comfortable confines of her herb business in Pecan Springs, Texas to join her mother, Leatha and Aunt Tullie at Jordan's Crossing, the Coldwell family plantation in the Yazoo Valley of Mississippi. What is supposed to be a short trip to help her mother and Aunt Tullie get the plantation affairs in order turns into a labyrinthine exploration of the generations of families who have lived on the plantation, and the mysteries surrounding their legacies.

Albert is not a writer who shies away from tough issues, and though some classify the China Bayles novels as "cozy," Bloodroot is anything but. In addition to a fever-pitch climactic scene, she tackles such subjects as the repercussions of inherited disease; Native American land rights; several varieties of "forbidden love" and other topics. China's investigation of the present-day affairs of the plantation lead her head-on into the buried secrets of her ancestors' past. The body count was three as far as I could tell, and even though only one takes place in the present, they're all very relevant for China as she seeks to set the affairs of the plantation in order.

Although readers accustomed to the series will miss the presence of regulars like McQuaid and Ruby, Bloodroot works very well as a stand-alone novel. Albert is at the top of her writing game here, magically evoking the deeply atmospheric and beautiful environment of rural Mississippi on the page. Her handling of a number of complex story lines has never been better.

This book brought to mind several interesting perspectives on family secrets and the nature of history. We often tend to view the past as quaint, we romanticize it. But our ancestors faced all sorts of difficult relationships, economic hardships, deaths, etc. Sure the time period and cultural context was different, but they were human experiences all the same. China's realization of this, which is never preachy, reveals a tender strain of love that binds and separates her relatives.

Albert's emphasis on love and remembrance shows us, in some way, why we do the things we do. We don't know the extent of what people have faced in their lives that leads them to be the kinds of people they are. Often such events are purposely buried, but never forgotten. They haunt the present in more ways than we might anticipate.