Conjure Women: a Novel by Afria Atakora . New York, NY: Random House, 2020. 400 pp.
The civil war is over, slavery abolished, but Rue’s life remains the same in many ways. She and most of her community continue to live on the plantation where they were once slaves; the world outside is just too uncertain. Miss Rue is attending a birth as the story opens, following in her mother’s footsteps as a healer and midwife. Readers will have the opportunity meet Rue’s mother, Miss May Belle, and learn about her other skills as a conjure woman, during glimpses into “slaverytime” and “wartime” throughout the novel. (These same glimpses also introduce Miss Varina—the plantation owner’s daughter and another important face in the story.)
While Miss May Belle enjoyed her community’s unconditional love and trust, Rue is not so lucky. When she delivers Bean, a strange child born in the caul, those who once relied on her become suspicious. They fear the child is cursed, coming from the devil, and that Rue herself is a witch. When a smooth-talking traveling preacher, Bruh Abel, comes into town, the dark rumors continue to grow—especially when Rue is caught coming back from a secret trip in the middle of the night.
When an illness called the “Ravaging” strikes all the children but Bean, the community turns completely against Miss Rue. As children die, parents turn away her help, choosing to put their faith in Bruh Abel instead of the woman they’ve known their whole lives. Rue, however, does not automatically trust Bruh Abel; she has a secret of her own to protect and must decide whom she can trust, and at what cost.
Conjure Women will keep readers hooked with unexpected turns and a vivid depiction of what life was like just after slavery ended. The author excels in portraying the uncertainty of the time period, the powerful role of spirituality, and in demonstrating that freedom did not automatically make life easy. Readers should know that this is not a gentle read, but one well worth picking up. Afia Atakora’s debut is powerful, and one that will keep readers thinking long after they’ve finished reading.
Kelsey Blackburn is the Circulation Assistant at North Park Public Library and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.