Dolen Perkins-Valdez made a name for herself with her New York Times best-selling and critically acclaimed debut novel, Wench. Inspired by the real-life Tawawa House, a “resort” for white slave owners to vacation with their black sex slaves during pre-Civil War America, Wench was a spellbinding tale of one of the darkest aspects of our nation’s history. It won the Black Caucus of the American Library Association First Novel Award and was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for fiction.
Now Perkins-Valdez returns with her sophomore effort in Balm. Here we have the story of three new post-Civil War transplants to Chicago who are determined to start a new life in a new city. There is Madge, the freeborn black woman from Tennessee, so lost that she feels “she might as well have come from another country.” What Madge wants, quite simply, is “to know what this newfound freedom meant for a colored woman.”
There is newly married white Sadie, en route to join her husband, only to find him dead and herself a widow, mistress of a house and servants she does not know. Sadie wraps herself in mourning, refusing to see anyone—barely leaving her house.
And there is Hemp, the freed slave banking on a missionary’s promise “to take him to a city where he could find work and where other coloreds might help him find his wife,” who was sold years ago to another slave owner.
Told in quick, intertwined narratives from each character’s perspective, Balm is deeply engaging, propelling the reader onward with the energy and momentum of its prose. Each character is riveting and astutely drawn. Hemp, the freed slave, compulsively touches his freedom papers, “still gripped by the fear that at any moment, someone would chain his ankles, push him onto a wagon and take him back.”
Here, action is purposeful, grown organically from the fundamental essence of character. Sadie, the new wife and new widow, is “uncertain what was expected of her”—even as she realizes that for her dead husband, she was to have been nothing more than a piece of pretty furniture, like the chairs she sits on. And Madge revels in the small things—like wearing an orange scarf, which, back in Tennessee, “would have been taken for hubris” on a black woman.
The language is rich, precise and clear. Chicago, Madge thinks, is a place where “the ocean stirred waves as tall as trees” and “this broad flatness looked like the floor of heaven itself.” But some lines are simply heartbreaking. For Hemp, the freed slave, being treated like something close to a human being brings with it this sentence: “There was no end to this feeling of overwhelming gratitude.”
The use of history is accurate but also made timely. Perkins-Valdez showcases a fine discernment in choosing specific details to create a rich, vivid atmosphere and sense of place. Nineteenth-century Chicago is painted as a place of “plate-glass windows” and “hackneys, carriages, teams of horses flying madly by in all directions, leaving behind a cloud of dust so thick she could barely see.” Tennessee, on the other hand, is a place where one has to know how much of the farm’s produce “could be eaten now and what could be eaten later, how much meat was salted, how much milk they could reliably draw from the goat, how many eggs the three hens marching around the yard might yield.”
And there is the portrayal of the white man, the Northern liberal who considers himself educated, and yet “it had never occurred to him that the colored men he saw walking the streets had stories of their own.” Here, Perkins-Valdez manages to bring up the invisibility of blackness in white society, as well as the ignored trauma of slavery—both still very present forces that have been neither acknowledged nor dealt with in our society—in a single moment.
In her widowed isolation, Sadie begins to hear the voices of the dead speaking to her. And when Madge finds work in Sadie’s house, she is drawn into Sadie’s world of visitations and ghosts. Madge, raised by a mother and two aunts who were the town’s wisewomen and healers, is not unfamiliar with this territory. But as Sadie turns her communications with the dead into for-profit séances, Madge is pulled deeper into Sadie’s world—even as she fears the depths of what Sadie has gotten into. When Hemp, having exhausted all other possibilities of finding his wife, seeks out Sadie’s help, the lives of all three become enmeshed.
Although Hemp originally sought out Sadie’s help to find his wife, he is drawn to Madge romantically—not just for her beauty and gift of healing but also because, as a free black woman who had never been a slave, she “had never known what he knew: the denial of everything that made him a man, the single, unmitigated belief that a man was born to work like an animal.” Madge, however, misses her Tennessee home and is hesitant to commit to Hemp without knowing the truth of what happened to his wife. And when Sadie’s visitations from the spirit world intensify, past and present collide as Madge, Hemp and Sadie try to reconcile who they used to be with who they are becoming.
Balm skillfully draws from the tradition of magical realism perfected in Toni Morrison's classic novel Beloved, in which the spirit world is made real in the day-to-day world of regular folks. Here, Perkins-Valdez has crafted an important tale of a pivotal time in our nation’s history—a time when freed slaves, just beginning their Great Migration north, were learning how to be free—and America was learning what kind of future this newfound freedom would herald. A thrilling and deeply satisfying read.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.