Review: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Summary: Conjure Women is a sweeping story that brings the world of the South before and after the Civil War vividly to life. Spanning eras and generations, it tells of the lives of three unforgettable women: Miss May Belle, a wise healing woman; her precocious and observant daughter Rue, who is reluctant to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a midwife; and their master’s daughter Varina. The secrets and bonds among these women and their community come to a head at the beginning of a war and at the birth of an accursed child, who sets the townspeople alight with fear and a spreading superstition that threatens their newly won, tenuous freedom.
Genre: historical fiction, magical realism
Rating: 4/5 stars

When I was younger, I heavily avoided historical fiction as a whole. The details always felt bogged down. I didn’t understand what could be so interesting about a story that we already know. If it’s part of history, surely we learned about it to some extent, and what’s the point of rehashing that when there are so many other unique stories we can tell instead, you know? My naivety was kind of embarrassing.

Within the last five years or so, I started reading historical fiction based in WW2 Europe and instantly fell in love with the genre, because here’s the thing: yes, if it’s historical fiction we’ve most likely learned about it to some extent, but there are so many unique sides to history that we aren’t always taught. We can’t possibly be taught history from every single perspective, and the historical fiction genre serves to educate us in that realm. Conjure Women is an excellent example of the different narratives that we miss in our standard history lessons in school.

Conjure Women is told in alternating chapters and years, the first following May Belle, a healing woman, her daughter Rue, and their relationship with their master’s daughter, Varina in a timeline leading up to the Civil War. The alternating chapters focus on Rue as an adult, after the war has ended, having taken her mother’s place as a healing woman, where she becomes attached to a mysterious newborn and faces backlash from her community.

There’s a lot of emphasis on how previously enslaved people learn to survive after the war, which is a part of history we don’t often see. We’re usually taught that the war ended, slaves were freed, and that’s it. Instead, this book shows us how the previously enslaved people still lived on their old ruined plantation out of fear of moving elsewhere. Some people who try to run north are tortured and dragged back as a threat. Some are never heard from again. Then again, how do you move forward and create a life for yourself when your life still isn’t truly your own? There’s a complexity to their newfound freedom, and the emphasis on this is a unique take on the era.

The chapters following this timeline move at a much slower pace, as Rue struggles to find her voice and help her community during a plague outbreak. I struggled with this portion of the story until the end when the community’s secrets began to unravel and everything finally fell into place.

I found the chapters with young Rue to be more interesting, as the reader watches her grow up and develop a friendship with her master’s daughter who is the same age. Despite the third person narrative, we see everything through Rue’s perspective, which means sometimes her lack of understanding or naivety clouds the story. Rather than make this confusing for the reader, it helps you feel like you’re truly in that moment with Rue. You follow her as she grows from a quiet, timid child to a strong woman who struggles with her identity but ultimately learns that her role in life is up to her after spending her entire life being suppressed.

There was no use in fighting Marse Charles’s commandment. Varina and Rue, they were bound to their roles, and always had been, Rue figured, by something stronger than curse and conjure—simply, they’d been raised to be the women they had become.

This is one of a few books I’ve read that takes place during the slavery era, and as someone who was never too invested in reading historical fiction about it before, I cannot recommend this book enough. This is a heartbreaking story of the aftermath of the Civil War, but it also is about so much more than that. American slavery has a 200+ year old history, and it’s something that we as a country still have not fully stepped away from. Racism, as a learned trait, is still fully alive in society today, and more than ever it’s important to read Black and slave stories. We could all use to educate ourselves more on the subject, and Conjure Women does a beautiful job of that.

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