The cooler weather and changing season brings with it the desire to settle into an engrossing read, and this month’s pick is a historical fiction tale that serves mystery and a hint of magic. Afia Atakora’s debut novel, “Conjure Women” (2020, Random House) spans generations and explores larger themes of faith, secrets, and loyalty on an almost allegorical level, while successfully bringing to life well-developed characters who are complicated, flawed, and captivating.
Following two different timelines, “Conjure Women” takes place on a Southern plantation both during the Civil War as well as after the war has ended. Rue, a young girl during the earlier timeline, grows up in slavery with her mother May Belle, a well-respected and powerful healer and midwife. Learning much about herbs, spells, curses, and childbirth from May Belle, perhaps one of the most important things Rue’s mother teaches her is that “faith in magic was far more potent than magic itself.”
During the novel’s later timeline, May Belle has passed away and Rue is now the community’s conjure woman, yet she lives with doubt and disbelief regarding her practice. When Bean, a baby with piercing black eyes and an unusual pattern on his skin, is born, the town becomes uneasy while Rue feels a connection to the child. A sudden illness spreads through all of the town’s children except for Bean, resulting in heightened suspicions that turn into threats and distrust toward Rue from the townspeople who believe she and Bean have ties to dark magic. Desperate to regain her place in the community, to protect Bean from harm, and to maintain her longstanding secret within the woods she visits regularly at night, Rue’s resourcefulness and determination prove time and again that she will stop at nothing to hold onto what she cares about. At a moment of so much change and uncertainty after the fall of the plantation and the end of the war, Rue takes risks and faces danger while holding onto ties that remain from a previous era.
“Conjure Women” is a novel with numerous strengths. Rue, May Belle, and the plantation’s master’s daughter, Varina, are each intriguing characters with complexities far beyond being “good” or “bad.” The setting, while firmly grounded in the real world and a very unique time in American history, maintains a strong aura of magic and mystery that leads to many questions throughout as to what is real, what is a lie, and what is simply unexplainable. While the writing is beautifully descriptive, the story itself is also captivating – as it jumps back and forth between timelines with each chapter, those with a strong presence in the past still haunt the later story as ghosts more palpable than the spirits who are alluded to.
Check out “Conjure Women” at your closest Denver Public Library location or as an ebook or eaudiobook through denverlibrary.org.
Curbside holds pickup pro-tip
Are you taking advantage of Denver Public Library’s curbside holds pickup service? Since Smiley Branch Library is still closed for renovation, the Woodbury Branch Library is processing Smiley customer holds, and it can be tricky to snag a reservation before your holds expire. The Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Branch Library on Colfax and Irving is another Northwest Denver location that frequently has more holds pickup reservation slots available – consider picking up your holds at Gonzales if it’s convenient and you’re looking for more available times to grab your materials.