I recently finished Balm by Dolen Perkins -Valdez over Thanksgiving Break. Balm is Perkins-Valdez’s second novel and follows her New York Times bestseller debut Wench.I had the pleasure of meeting Perkins-Valdez four years ago while she discussed the premise and success of Wench. I have to confess that Wench held me hostage for an entire weekend and would not allow me to leave my house until I finished reading it. Wench was a historical godsend, for it explored the relationship among four African American enslaved women whose owners would meet and vacation at a resort in antebellum Ohio and bring their servants with them. Over the years, the women formed a friendship and bonded over the fact that they all shared many of the sorrows that specifically plagued enslaved women such as abuse, broken families, and the struggle to control and express themselves under a system that sought to strip them of their femininity. At the same time, each of the women had their own unique background and story to tell and was very similar to the structure and content of Nina Simone’s Four Girls. The depiction of the bond and community of support these women formed over the years to survive such an oppressive system was a breath of fresh and is in direct contrast to the misguided images currently dominating many of today’s reality television shows .
When I heard that Perkins-Valdez had finally released her second novel, I was elated and could not wait to pick up a copy. This time around it took me a little longer to read because of my work schedule and the fact that I am now mom to a rambunctious toddler. Perkins-Valdez introduces us to three characters: Madge, Sadie, and Hemp. Before I began, I had to make a conscience effort to remind myself that I was not reading a sequel to Wench, for this turn around only one of the main characters, Madge, is African American and she shares the spotlight with Sadie, a white woman, and Hemp, and African American man. All three of the characters converge on Chicago for different reasons before the conclusion of the Civil War and immediately feel like fish out of water. Madge, who has been taught the art of homeopathic healing, like so many other African Americans moves to Chicago seeking new opportunities that were absent back home in Tennessee among her emotionally distant mother and aunts.Sadie on the other hand has been forced to move to Chicago after her mother and father arranged a marriage to a wealthy Union soldier she met only once . Upon her arrival, she is greeted by the news that her husband died a few days before. While trying to find her way in a new city as a wealthy widow to a man with whom she had yet to consummate her marriage, she instead finds herself consumed by a male spirit who begins to use her as a medium. Hemp unlike Sadie and Madge is a runaway that relocated to Chicago with hopes of finding word of his wife who was taken from him during the war. All three of their paths cross in a foreign city where the lingering effects of the war hang around every corner.
Although Perkins-Valdez formula slightly deviates from Wench, the celebration and exploration of sisterhood is still an integral piece of the story whether it is being displayed in the relationship between Madge and her mother, among Madge’s mother and aunts, or between Madge and Elizabeth who eventually employs Madge as her maid .In addition, both Madge and Elizabeth are forced to identify, recognize, and embrace their strength as single women living in Chicago free from the guardianship of a man.
I really sympathized with Hemp’s search for his wife which seems to be the core of his story .One can only image how many enslaved men and women wrestled with the same inner turmoil he experiences over his attraction to Madge and temptation to pursue happiness. Although he desperately tries to honor the matrimonial vows he holds dear, he is constantly reminded that those very vows were exchanged under a system that does not legally recognize marriages among the enslaved. At the same time, I was disappointed by the fact that Perkins-Valdez successfully built up the suspense and mystery behind his wife’s disappearance only to provide somewhat empty answers to a plethora of questions I just knew she would address upon the conclusion of his story. In retrospect, I think this is an issue I have with all of Balm’s main characters. I ended the book still feeling that I needed to know more about their fates in Chicago or with the families they left the behind.
Nevertheless, Balm is a great read, and I can’t wait for Perkins-Valdez’s third publication.