Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Review: THE CONJURE WOMAN by Charles Waddell Chesnutt

the conjure woman cover Original Publication Date: 1899

Genre: folk tales

Topics: slavery, antebellum South, magic

Review by heidenkind:

John and Annie are northerners who relocate to North Carolina for Annie's health, and want to invest in some property. The first day looking around their new neighborhood they meet old Uncle Julius McAdoo, a former slave who John enlists for help. Uncle Julius knows everything there is to know about the area, the former plantations, and their owners, and loves to tell stories about what life was like before the Civil War–stories filled with strange happenings and "conjure," a hoodoo kind of magic. John dismisses these tales as ignorant and fanciful, but that doesn't stop Uncle Julius from using them as a metaphor to manipulate John and Annie for his own purposes.

This is a book I would recommend to anyone. First of all, the writing style is super-smart and clever. Charles Waddell Chesnutt definitely had a way with words, and there's an underlying current of humor and intelligence in the narration. Secondly, the stories themselves are simply fascinating. Some of them are comedic; many of them are tragedies. But taken on their own they stand up with the greatest of Aesop's Fables or Grimm's fairy tales. And lastly, The Conjure Woman is book that's not simply a collection of stories–it's about race relations in the South after the Civil War.

Chesnutt was a 19th-century African American journalist who became an influential early member of the NAACP. The Conjure Woman was his first book, and it's cleverly framed by the contemporary (in Chesnutt's time) lives of John and Annie. John's perspective gives the stories context–for example, after "The Gray Wolf's Ha'nt," John suspects Uncle Julius told him this story for the express purpose of keeping a piece of John's property undeveloped. Julius is obviously not afraid to take advantage of the ignorance of his boss, and tries to influence both him and Annie with his tales.

When it comes to Annie, however, one gets the feeling that her view of Uncle Julius is both more realistic and more sympathetic than John's: John sees the antebellum South in a romantic light, whereas Annie can understand the precariousness and harshness of life from Julius' tales.

But the main focus of The Conjure Woman is, of course, Uncle Julius' stories, which are bizarre and terrifying and definitely have the atmosphere of another world. In tone they kind of reminded me of Django Unchained: full of danger, mystery, vengeance, love, dark humor, violence, and the sense that this a place where anything can happen. But that doesn't mean people in the stories are powerless. They have the conjure woman!

I listened to the Librivox recording of The Conjure Woman, and the narrator, James K. White, did an absolutely fantastic job. I can't imagine anyone performing this book better. His accents and voices were absolutely perfect.

I'd definitely recommend The Conjure Woman if you're looking for a classic about the lives of slaves in the US that takes an honest look at race relations in both pre- and post-Civil War America, yet isn't a downer. I'm really happy I decided to give this one a try!

Download The Conjure Woman by Charles Waddell Chesnutt at Project Gutenberg|Librivox