Friday, August 12, 2022

Medicine, Herb Lore, Witchcraft, and Race

It’s a curious coincidence—but only a coincidence—that this summer I happen to be featuring two widowed novel heroines named Maddie who practice medicine. The first, Anne Louise Bannon’s Maddie Wilcox, earned a medical degree in Boston (possible but difficult for a woman in the 1860s) before accepting what turned out to be an unhappy marriage to a friend of her father’s and accompanying her husband west to Los Angeles, then little more than a cow town, where her unsatisfactory husband fortunately met his end in short order. Widowhood frees this Maddie to make a life for herself as a winemaker—a big industry in LA in the 1870s, before the vineyards moved north—although she uses her professional qualifications to help those around her and supplement her income. Her doctoring skills also bring her into contact with suspicious deaths, which she then solves, as described in my New Books Network interview with her creator.

Adele Holmes’s Maddie Fairbanks—the main character in Holmes’s debut novel, Winter’s Reckoning—has a somewhat different history but faces similar issues. Like Maddie Wilcox, Maddie Fairbanks grew up in Boston and left that city to be with her husband in Jamesville, a small town in the Appalachian Mountains, but she married for love and regrets her husband’s death. Again like Maddie Wilcox, Mrs. Fairbanks faces prejudices against women and even more severe instances of racial discrimination, aimed not at herself but at people she is close to, because certain men of the town don’t approve of her belief in integration and equality. By 1917, when Holmes’s novel opens, the Ku Klux Klan is resurgent, making the costs of opposing segregation a matter, literally, of life and death.

Unlike Mrs. Wilcox, however, the medicine Maddie Fairbanks practices is herbal, the result of a long tradition of female healers in her family who sometimes suffered from persecution as witches because of their knowledge. As Adele Holmes and I discuss in our recent New Books Network interview, this family tradition, combined with the forty-year time gap and a different geographical location, intensifies the threat to Maddie Fairbanks when she chooses to confront Jamesville’s newest resident, a charismatic preacher of dubious qualifications who is determined to put Maddie in her place.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction:

Madeline (Maddie) Fairbanks has created a satisfying life for herself in Jamesville since the death of her husband, Samuel, one of the town’s leading citizens. An herbalist from a long line of female healers, she provides medical care to local residents at all levels of society, traveling into the hills and from house to house with Renetta Morgan, her young assistant. Although Ren is black and Maddie white, the townsfolk accept their partnership, since the only alternative is a circuit-riding doctor who appears a few times a year. Race relations in Jamesville are tense, with restrictions on who can walk where and which door to the general store serves which type of customer, yet for the most part, Ren and Maddie manage to skirt the rules without drawing undue attention to themselves.

Then Carl Howard arrives in town. At first, he intends merely to pass through, but when he discovers that the town is waiting for a vicar who has not appeared on schedule, Carl sees an opening and announces that he is the reverend assigned to Jamesville’s Protestant church. On his first Sunday, he preaches a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon condemning outspoken, independent women and racial integration. Maddie opposes his point of view, and he fights back by declaring her interest in herbal medicine the equivalent of witchcraft. Before long, the two are at loggerheads, Ren is caught in the middle, and the Ku Klux Klan is riding the wave of Carl’s approval to threaten the people of Jamesville.

In Winter’s Reckoning, Adele Holmes has created an unflinching portrayal of how one narcissistic individual can wreak havoc on an entire community, fanning the flames of underlying conflicts until they explode into violence and hatred. But she also shows how the strength of family, friends, and a powerful, committed heroine can overcome such challenges—producing a novel as heart-warming as it is thought-provoking.

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