One of the more ghastly aspects of the American Civil War was that it was really the first time that the young country was confronted with mass death. More than 600,000 people died in the war, a number that people couldn’t really wrap their minds around—and the government offered no rituals or protocols to deal with such carnage. Often, soldiers were simply buried in mass graves on or near the battlefields where they fell. Séances were the rage as bereaved friends and family members tried to contact the dead; even the Lincolns held séances at the White House. Added to this were millions of freed slaves who were desperate to reunite with loved ones, both those separated from them by war and those they were parted from by slavery.
Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s second novel, Balm, follows a group of refugees who meet in the bustling, reeking and bewildering city of Chicago. There’s Sadie, a young widow who lost her husband in the war and soon discovers she has the terrifying gift of being able to channel the dead. Madge, the fierce “root woman” healer, has come up north from Tennessee. Hemp, an ex-slave, has fled Kentucky to find his wife, Annie, who was sold away before the war—and also to find her daughter, whom he believes he wronged. Of all the characters, Hemp is the one most concerned with doing the right thing. Even as a slave, he waited for a preacher to properly marry him and Annie. When he and Madge meet in Chicago, he can’t give into her blandishments because he is a married man, even though he doesn’t know if Annie is alive.
Perkins-Valdez, author of the acclaimed 2010 novel Wench, has a genius for placing the reader in the postwar welter of a city and the quieter but no less troubled farms of the South. The reader wants the best for these wounded characters, and whatever happiness they find in the end is hard won. Balm doesn’t just apply to Madge’s potions, but to the comfort that comes from human connection.