Stereotypical but Stylish Identity Crisis in ‘The Healing’

"The Healing" by Jonathan Odell (Nan A. Talese)

“When I look up,” thinks the elderly former slave Granada in a dream, “there are women as far as I can see, standing in the river one behind the other, generations going back to beginning time, from the very womb of God.” Jonathan Odell’s coming-of-age story “The Healing” contains a breathtaking density of beautifully written dreams like these. Odell, through this rich language, explores symbolic threads of identity, womanhood, and mysticism, and manages to tie together a narrative that transitions through the memory and imagination of one remarkable woman’s life. Though little creativity exists in the novel’s structure—nearly every element of “The Healing” seems taken directly from a classic bildungsroman—the novel exhibits contemplative force and realistic emotion. Odell weaves a story that, while rather abrupt in its ending, is tender and thoughtful in its exploration of a gifted woman, her mysterious past, and the strange young black girl with a metronome-like head tic she looks after.

The story, which takes place in Mississippi in the era surrounding the Civil War, begins when the elderly healer Granada takes in the young girl Violet, whose mother died from a botched abortion attempt of her second child. Granada, who is unsure how to help Violet recover from the trauma of this recent experience, decides to bridge the gap between them by telling her ward stories of her own childhood on a plantation in antebellum Mississippi. It is in this murky past that most of the narrative unfolds.

Granada’s story began when the plantation master’s wife took her from her enslaved parents. The woman, who was going insane, believed that Granada carried a piece of her own daughter’s soul because she was born at the same time that the dying girl succumbed to cholera. Granada subsequently underwent a complicated identity crisis, for her proximity to the plantation owners imbued her with great contempt for field slaves and additional prejudice against the darkest-skinned ones—including her own estranged mother. The catalyst for her transformation into a woman came from an old healer who arrived at the plantation to prevent another cholera outbreak. The woman selects Granada as her protégée after witnessing some hidden inner power in the girl. Odell weaves the story of their relationship with tenderness and wisdom; Granada eventually comes to find a place in a network of souls reaching back to her heritage in Africa and forward through generations.

While Odell for the most part does a commendable job navigating very charged topics—racism, womanhood, abortion, and the brutality of plantation owners—numerous aspects of the narrative remain disjointed. Granada breaks in and out of telling her recollections in order to interact with Violet, but there are points at which her lapses into memory appear contrived; for example, Violet points at masks on the wall to urge on an aspect of Granada’s story that seems naturally sequential, without need of prodding or reminder.

Another major flaw is Odell’s tendency to play the tropes of feminine “coming of age” and “wise women” too frequently—it becomes a literary crutch to rely on instead of exploring her character in further detail. Granada is selected as an assistant by the itinerant healer, but the reader never learns exactly what her cryptic “gift” entails. This omission replaces a potentially substantial exploration of her character with a nebulous cluster of readers’ preconceptions about exemplary children chosen for their “gifts.” Similarly, Odell later comes to rely on the supposed mystical aspects of womanhood to explain Granada’s shifting loyalties from the plantation owners to her fellow African-Americans. Hormonal upheavals aside, there are certainly many other reasons for a character to embrace her racial heritage. Here, it comes across as a hackneyed attempt to explain the workings of the female mind.

Stereotypes aside, however, “The Healing” draws strength from the power of its language as well as Granada’s emotional journey to reconcile her past with her present. “Throughout this season of signs, Granada learned to watch and to listen,” Odell writes. “She waited for the sight to burn bright, to light the way for her, to reveal her place in that river of souls.” Her enigmatic skills, coupled with descriptive and vivid language, enliven her story beyond its stereotypical boundaries. Her struggle to find her place in the world is poignant and relatable, even if this literary ground has been well-trod before.

“The Healing” is certainly not a groundbreaking work, but it does lend a moving perspective to an oft-told story. “The revelation was neither blinding nor thunderous,” Odell writes, as Granada finally connects to her past through healing another. In the end, Odell proves, stories about the human experience need not be revelations; the healing power of the human story is a truth that can be lovely with every retelling.

–Staff writer Aisha K. Down can be reached at aishadown@college.harvard.edu.

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