Patricia's Reviews > The Red Garden

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman
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Dec 18, 11

Read from December 14 to 18, 2011

I usually enjoy reading Alice Hoffman's novels and admire the quality of her writing. However, I was somewhat disappointed with this collection of inter-related short stories. The Red Garden covers roughly two centuries in the history of Blackwell, Massachusetts, a small town in the Berkshires. The original name of the town was Bearsville, but the townspeople changed it to Blackwell, fearing that the mention of bears might deter new people from taking up residence. Hallie Brady, the woman who is generally regarded as the town's founder, is commemorated every August with a play put on by the inhabitants.

The stories focus on various residents of Blackwell at different points in its history, but the main character is really the town itself. Most of the stories are about the descendants of the original settlers. In one story, John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) and his brother pass through Blackwell, stopping to plant apple trees. Legend has it that the oldest tree in town, known to the residents as the Tree of Life, was planted by Johnny Appleseed.

Many events take place in a natural setting, such as the nearby woods, the eel-choked river or the garden to which the book's title refers. Usually there is a gap of several decades or more between the stories. That made it difficult at times to keep track of how the younger characters in the stories were related to their predecessors. The residents of Blackwell face wars, poverty, hunger, disease, injury, or death. A disproportionate number of the characters die tragically at a young age. Women and men in the town also appear to have a disproportionate number of casual sexual encounters with strangers. I'm not suggesting that there is a connection.

These stories contain the blend of reality and the supernatural that Hoffman typically gives her readers. Perhaps I am becoming too familiar with the formula. Maybe I thought the stories were overly morbid or melancholic. It could be that I just prefer reading novels to short stories. In any case, I hope the author will go back to writing her full-length novels and give me a chance to develop a deeper bond with the characters.
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