First the settlers called the Massachusetts town Bearsville, and for good reason. Without the bears that succored Hallie Brady, the earliest settlers would not have survived their first winter. Thirty-six years later, in 1786, they changed the name to Blackwell, but every year they hold a Hallie Brady Day to celebrate the woman who, with help, saved her neighbors from starvation in the winter of 1750.

Throughout Alice Hoffman’s flowing, gentle collection of linked stories about Blackwell from then to now, bears keep reappearing as resident spirits of the village, along with other recurring themes from the past—Johnny Appleseed, for instance. He planted an apple tree in town that still survives as “The Tree of Life,” protected by the belief that, as long as it lives, the town will too. Other meaningful characters include an elephant that is sacrificed in the name of modern science; a monster who writes poetry; a dog that is faithful past death; a mother mistaken for her daughter; and a little girl who drowns early on and keeps reappearing in later stories like a little fallen star, shining in the Eel River. And yes, there is the garden that turns everything planted in it to red, no matter its original color.

Alice Hoffman, herself a shining star among American novelists, possesses the stunning ability to express the numinous in the most prosaic language. Somehow, without elaborate wordplay, she manages to communicate a yearning interpretation of the life we all live, opening the reader’s eyes to the otherworldly riddles that make things appear just a trifle askew—when we notice them, that is. And Alice Hoffman certainly notices them. One secret of her ongoing appeal, year after year, book after book, is her keen perception. And in The Red Garden, Hoffman delivers a body of stories that explores the depths of reality as well as its enduring quirkiness.

 

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