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Tales span more than 200 years in fictional Berkshires town

ALICE HOFFMAN ALICE HOFFMAN (Deborah Feingold)
By Ann Harleman
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2011

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Alice Hoffman’s newest book, “The Red Garden,’’ is not, properly speaking, a novel at all. It’s a collection of 14 stories set in Blackwell, Mass., a fictional village deep in the woods of the Berkshires. Beginning with Blackwell’s founding in 1786 by a handful of inept, unprepared settlers, these stories span more than 200 years. Each one, complete in itself, offers a time-stamped snapshot of the lives of Blackwell’s inhabitants — the temporal equivalent of a holograph. If this book has a plot, it is not the usual kind. Instead, against a background of far-off historical events Hoffman sets the ongoing life of one small town and its episodic interaction with the natural world that surrounds it.

The many fans of Hoffman’s fiction expect to find magic playing a role in it, and they will not be disappointed by “The Red Garden.’’ In the opening story, “The Bear’s House,’’ 17-year-old Hallie Brady saves Blackwell’s first settlers from starvation by catching eels with her bare hands and milking a hibernating bear. The best of the tales that follow feature shape-shifting characters who are sometimes animal, sometimes human. In “The Fisherman’s Wife,’’ a mysterious and silent newcomer in a long black coat and with smooth black hair “so long she would have stepped on it if she hadn’t arranged it atop her head with pins’’ goes door to door selling fish for her husband, a local who’s said to have caught over a million eels. This woman fascinates the gossipy townsfolk and captures the heart of Ben Levy, a collector of folklore passing through Blackwell. Ben accepts the fisherman’s offer to trade his wife for Ben’s shoes — but only after she’s metamorphosed into . . . Can you guess?

“The Monster of Blackwell,’’ a tale of violence and tragedy, is set in motion by the arrival of another outlander. Matthew James, originally from Albany, N.Y., is “exceedingly ugly, so ugly he couldn’t look at himself.’’ Kate Partridge, a descendant of one of Blackwell’s founding families, falls in love with him anyway. But a little girl dies in the woods (not the first one in this book to do so), and Blackwell’s citizens blame the bearlike monster occasionally glimpsed there. Matthew — perhaps in his human shape, perhaps in the animal one the townsfolk attribute to him — must leave Blackwell forever.

The strongest stories in “The Red Garden’’ are those in which the folktale form, despite its prescribed simplicity of perspective and voice, allows Hoffman’s gifts as a storyteller ample scope. In “The Fisherman’s Wife,’’ “The Bear’s House,’’ “The Truth about My Mother,’’ and “The Red Garden,’’ the storyteller’s voice bewitches us, and we experience the everyday world threaded through with magic. We feel its freshness, hearing laughter shine “through the darkness, brighter than any light,’’ falling in love “like a stone dropped into a river,’’ watching a toddler “hurtle into each day.’’ “The Red Garden,’’ the penultimate tale in the collection — which should have been allowed to stand as the closing story — employs the conventions of the folktale to reveal the mystery at the heart of this book in a way both surprising and moving.

In the less effective stories here, the folk-tale form exhibits the defects of its virtues. Simplicity degenerates into simplification. The result is passages that sound as if they were lifted from a children’s chapter book, with age-appropriate restrictions on vocabulary and syntax: “Emily went for a walk on her last day at school. Her family was taking her out of Mount Holyoke Seminary; she was needed at home and she hadn’t been happy at the school. Her views were her own, and educators did not always appreciate free thought. It was time to leave. . . . She liked to disappear, even when she was in the same room as other people.’’ This limited voice often entails a correspondingly limited vision. Description settles into clichés — “Hannah was a good egg when she let her hair down’’; “[Tessa] looked like a fashion plate.’’ This limited vision shortchanges the characters’ experiences, both physical and psychological. Immediately after Kate Partridge and her aunt Hannah are attacked, and Kate is raped, “Kate sat back on her heels and tried to catch her breath. Blood flecked the ground. It pooled beneath the leaves. She pulled herself together and scurried over to her aunt. She put her ear to Hannah’s back. She thought she could hear her aunt breathing, but she wasn’t sure. She took off. Inside something cut through her like glass. Kate ran across the road and up the hill.’’

Despite its unevenness, “The Red Garden’’ makes for a singular reading experience. If this book has a protagonist, it is not the usual kind. So many characters over so many generations undergoing so many trials and tribulations means we don’t bond with any single one of them. Whose story is this, then? The garden of the title? The bear who nourished the town’s starving founders that first hard winter and who turns out to be the key to the garden’s puzzling pigmentation? The town itself? Hoffman leaves it for you to decide.

Ann Harleman is the author of two story collections, “Happiness’’ and “Thoreau’s Laundry,’’ and two novels, “Bitter Lake’’ and “The Year She Disappeared.’’ She can be reached at www.annharleman.com.

THE RED GARDEN
By Alice Hoffman
Crown, 270 pp., $25