Jo’s Pick of the Week: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

The intertwined relationships of a slave girl, her mother, and a plantation owner’s daughter are at the heart of this transporting debut novel.

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora alternates between Slaverytime in 1854 and Freedomtime in 1867. In Slaverytime, May Belle is a midwife and healer among the plantation’s slaves, but also is known for her ability to conjure hoodoo spells. Her young daughter, Rue, spends a lot of time fulfilling the whims of the master’s daughter, Varina. May Belle does not approve of the girls’ relationship, and reminds Rue that Varina is not her friend.

In Freedomtime, the emancipated slaves try to survive in their community among the burnt ruins of the plantation. Afia Atakora paints a grim picture of trying to survive with few resources and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. When Rue delivers a baby boy with unnerving black eyes and pale skin, the community thinks he is unnatural. When a disease spreads and starts killing the children, the residents blame Rue and the strange child for conjuring the illness.

Atakora did extensive research, and drew from the real histories from slave narratives and interviews conducted by the Work Projects Administration. She brings to life what it might have been like on a plantation before the Civil War and afterward. Conjure Women is a haunting, richly written tale about a tragic time in American history.

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