One of the most devastating and lasting impacts of slavery is the horrific toll it took on families, separating mothers from their children, spouses, and siblings. How appropriate, then, that family is at the core of “Remembrance,” the breathtaking debut novel by Rita Woods. In Woods’s epic, which centers on a sanctuary village on the Underground Railroad, family of choice — or of chance — supports and often supplements the blood ties that are threatened by institutional cruelty, determining everything from societal roles to survival.
“Remembrance” opens in the present day, with Gaelle, a young Haitian refugee, lost in a dream. She’s remembering her beloved grandmother, who died in the 2010 earthquake, and wakes to find herself in Cleveland, where she now lives and works as a nurse’s aide. As so many have before her, she has found safety in the north, but she is isolated, missing her sister Rose as well as her dead Grann. Only her friendship with another aide and her connection with an ancient and strangely nonverbal patient give her life meaning as she counts down the days until Rose, a student in California, can join her for Christmas.
Margot, the protagonist of the next in the four interwoven narratives, also has a sister, Veronique. Although they are both enslaved on a Louisiana plantation (the year is 1857), they have been promised their freedom when they turn 18. However, their grandmother’s gift of prophecy warns of impending disaster as Margot’s birthday approaches, and she begins to think of escape, even though it would mean leaving those she loves.
The story of Abigail, as her enslavers have renamed her, brings the book back to the island of Haiti, right as the uprising of 1791 and its horrifically bloody repression are about to claim lives and send both free and enslaved people fleeing to Louisiana. When a brutal act of reprisal destroys what little joy Abigail had managed to salvage, she finds herself channeling memory and faith from Africa. The next time we see her, she has made her way to freedom, founding the town of Remembrance and adopting the orphaned Winter as her putative heir to be the town’s next leader and protector.
Abigail has chosen Winter, we come to realize, because, like herself and Gaelle, the young orphan has supernatural powers; she is able at times to see “the pieces that made up a thing” and shift them. However, while Abigail has used a similar capability to alter molecular structures to keep Remembrance safe and Gaelle knows only that her hands can transmit heat, Winter’s powers are erratic and undisciplined.
These powers — like the ability to heal or to foresee the future, which other characters exhibit — have become something of a trope in contemporary fiction by African-American authors. As Ta-Nehisi Coates did in “The Water Dancer,” Woods weaves her magic into realistic descriptions seamlessly, almost as if they were emotional projections made real. (Before Coates, of course, Octavia Butler wrote masterful magical fantasy often focused on women, and both Colson Whitehead and Esi Edugyan have worked implausible, if not impossible, technologies into their flights to freedom.) But while Coates has traced his use of the supernatural to African-American myth and slave narratives — referencing faith and desperation made flesh — Woods’s magic stems largely from African and voudon traditions, drawing on the Haitian religion’s system of loas, intermediaries or saints. Abigail, for example, frequently invokes Babalawa, a take on a Yoruban priest or oracle, while the apparently ageless Josiah appears in all the narratives with his “tobacco-sweet breath,” suggesting the loa Papa Legba. He is, Margot realizes, “[n]ot good. Not evil. Just there. The way the copperhead snakes that lived in the bayous of Louisiana were neither good nor evil, but deadly all the same, as was their nature.”
That the supernatural is plausibly presented as quotidian, a part of nature, speaks to the author’s skill. For the characters, it is part of their heritage, a connection to family. As Margot’s beloved grandmother once explained, “The spirits, chére. They are everywhere, always. … They tell you the things you must know.”
None of this deft syncretism would matter were it not in the service of a grand tale. With a few striking exceptions, Woods does not dwell on the greater atrocities of slavery — the increasing lightness of each generation’s skin says enough — focusing instead on the everyday trials that bring these strong female characters to life. By the time of the book’s climax, when a young mother faces the loss of her babies, all the preceding centuries of grief and rage come through, as do the love and commitment these newfound families have forged. That’s a kind of magic that merits rereading, summoning realities that still have repercussions today.
By Rita Woods
Forge, 416 pp., $27.99