I finished Hairston’s harrowing and beautiful Redwood and Wildfire about a week ago, and I’ve been struggling to write about it in a way that does it justice. But it’s today that I learned about the acquittal of one George Zimmerman in the murder trial of one Trayvon Martin, and that — and what it says about how far we haven’t come, or how far we’ve backslid — makes a tangled ball of anger in my gut and an urgency to say something now.
Racial tension is one of the central defining elements of Redwood and Wildfire, which is set early in the 20th century, mostly in the imaginary town of Peach Grove, Georgia, and Chicago. Peach Grove is split three-ways: there’s colored Peach Grove, Peach Grove, and poor white Peach Grove. The titular protagonists, Redwood Phipps and Aidan Wildfire Cooper, hail from the colored and poor sides of the divide. They are strongly rendered people, believably flawed, but compassionate. By the novel’s end I was deeply emotionally invested in both of them. I’ve seldom wanted a more-or-less positive resolution for characters while simultaneously mistrusting the author’s intent to deliver it.
There were lots of things I loved about Redwood and Wildfire: terrific descriptions of the border between realism and magic, evocative prose, clear, but unobtrusive evidence of scrupulous research. But there are scenes where people are motivated by racial hatred that made me feel Hairston was stacking the deck just a bit. Could people really be that pointlessly hateful? That beastly?
And today, to the enduring shame of a jury, a state, and my nation, it’s all too easy to believe any horror Hairston concocted, and worse.
Tiny quibble: I started with a library copy of this large book, couldn’t finish before the due date, and finished with an electronic copy, which had intrusive copy edit problems — missing concluding words of sentences, words truncated by hyphens and the like. Still loved the book overall, and I’m eager to read more from Hairston.