Strong women grow in Hoffman's magic 'Garden'

Book Review: "The Red Garden," by Alice Hoffman. Crown, $25.

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Even if Alice Hoffman's books didn't speed by like a time-lapse photo of a moon going through its phases, you must love that she treats female characters as though they were queens ruling their kingdoms rather than helpmates or background players, which is often the case in movies.

In Ms. Hoffman's latest, "The Red Garden," she introduces Hallie Brady, an orphan from England who went to work at a hatmaker's at age 11, married in America at 17, and joined her 40-year-old husband on an ill-fated expedition into western Massachusetts before 1750.

Her husband convinces three families to accompany them but the men are discouraged by snow, cold, bears, starvation and their lack of hunting and survival skills. Not Hallie.

Ms. Hoffman writes, "She had come all the way from England and she didn't intend to die her first winter out, not on the western side of this high dark mountain."

Hallie smashed the ice on a frozen river to fish out eels for stew, built traps for rabbits and quietly befriended a slumbering mother bear and cub.

She is nothing if not a survivor. "She next concocted a net out of a satin skirt she'd bought in Birmingham, an article of clothing she had done terrible things in order to afford. That was the way she had earned her fare to Boston as well."

"The Red Garden" skips through time, tracing the story of the descendants of Hallie and the other founding families of Blackwell, Mass. (originally named Bearsville), as they encounter the curses and comforts of nature.

A grieving woman mistakes two apple-seed planting brothers for angels and abandons her plan to hang herself. A little girl drowns but her ghostly figure lingers. A man who considers himself "exceeding ugly" is mistaken for a bear or a monster when a real one roams free until he attacks the wrong woman.

The garden of the title, where red plants grow and passionate secrets and bones lie buried, is a common thread in these linked stories spanning nearly three centuries. Sorrow, hardship, tears, determination and renewed bids for life and love run throughout the book like the eels coursing through the Massachusetts river.

Ms. Hoffman has written 29 works of fiction and her characters often stray from the familiar and earthbound and into magic or enchantment. She invents witches, mermaids, clairvoyants, people who have been struck by lightning or see apparitions or create a secret world and language.

Many of her characters are partial to fairy tales or live in existences that mirror them with streaks of darkness and light. Death seems to stalk the families in "The Red Garden" but love regularly strikes and the resulting babies restart the cycle of life.

The rhythm of this novel is different from other Hoffman books. It's like swimming through a series of small, connected pools or wandering through a series of train cars.

They all move the story forward and toward a tell-tale heart ... and garden.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her Mad About the Movies blog at post-gazette.com/movies.


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