Hoffman is in familiar, magical turf in this collection of charming and engaging, if not always happy stories. The unifying core is the history of a town, from founding, as Bearsville, which includes a very significant nod to Romulus and Remus, to present, Blackwell, MA, and more particularly with a special garden behind the founder’s house, the Red Garden of the title. It has some lightly magical properties. There are mythical figures to be seen here, as well as spirits, some folks who are of questionable species, people with craft-y skills, people who have been damaged by the world, and those with a drive to wander. Bears figure prominently, both as a source of comfort and danger. Although there are dark doings in some of the stories, I found them, overall, delightful.
Hoffman is a big fan of fairy tales and many of the stories here would fit quite nicely into that genre. There are plenty of classic references as well, from a Tree of Life to elements of the founding of Rome, and more recent lore, such as Johnny Appleseed. And any garden must, of course, refer back to the first one. This is a plot rich with literary and cultural references and those who enjoy digging in such soil will emerge with happily muddy hands.
Through all is a fascination with our attachment to the land. The Tree of Life stands in nicely for the life-giving roots the Red Garden’s characters grow in their home. The red of the primal garden flows through several of the stories in which objects with a source in, or touched by the garden, take on the color. There are nods toward transcendentalism, with characters finding solace only when communing with nature. Some shapes are even shifted. Characters flow from one story into the next, which proceed in chronological order, children in a story appear as adults in a later one. Characters who die early may appear as spirits later.
One gripe I have with the book is that the characters are often very engaging and it was disappointing to have to leave their side after only a few pages. I was delighted by The Red Garden
. Alice Hoffman always offers a good read and I found this one better than most.