Regal House. 2023. 410 pp.
Marjorie Hudson's magnificent novel Indigo Field evokes the world of nature in the book's very first sentence: "Tucked between the Cedar River and the monstrous pines of the Gooley Ridge lies an ancient field, tangled and wild, knee high with last year's scrub, strewn with rocks the size of crouching men and sleeping deer."
The mix of images in that sentence—a river, trees, a field, grasses, rocks, humans, and animals—alerts the reader to what kind of book this is, a novel in which the physical environment figures prominently in the story. The huge pines on that ridge have lived for hundreds of years and have seen their share of history. Hudson reflects that "time is eternal and flowing, caught in circles within circles, uncounted." This is a novel about generations and the passage of time.
Hudson is a Southern writer, and Indigo Field belongs squarely in that genre. Unlike earlier Southern writers—the Agrarians, O'Connor, Faulkner, Welty—Hudson has a distinctly contemporary vision of the South recognizing both the South's history and its current complexities and ambiguities. She is neither sentimental nor comic in her depiction of people and scenes. She is a deadly serious writer, who has fastened her attention on the many worlds—white, black, indigenous—that make up today's South, each with its own interpretation of the past.
Hudson's fictional world—a rural area in the modern-day South—is richly detailed in prose both elegant and precise. Wildlife abounds. So do retirement centers for wealthy northerners who have relocated. The reader is introduced to goats, raccoons, dogs, chickens, and exotic birds, all of which have importance to the human characters in this book. The book's setting and location are critical elements in an appreciation of the author's intentions and the novel's themes.
Against the backdrop of the natural world and the region's history, Hudson tells a powerful story, a tale of race and injustice, of greed and indifference, of love and loss and healing. In this world redemption and forgiveness are possible, but characters must earn it.
The first character the reader meets is Rand Jefferson Lee, an anguished retired army colonel. He is a white man, a northerner recently transplanted in the South, and he lives in a upscale retirement community, where he doesn't feel like he belongs. We learn that he is dealing with a sudden personal loss and an uncertain future. On a jog, Rand carelessly, and quite literally, runs into the car of Miss Reba Jones, damaging her car and injuring his leg. He limps off without acknowledging or speaking to the car's driver. Reba vows that she will find the colonel and make him pay for repairs.
The collision between Rand and Reba is more than personal or incidental. It is a metaphor for much of what this novel explores: the historic clashes between people and groups throughout the history of the region, the divisions between worlds.
Reba is an elderly black woman, grieving the tragic death of her beloved grandniece, Danielle, a young woman recently murdered by her drug dealing boyfriend. Reba keeps a loaded pistol in a Charles Chips can in her kitchen, intending to use it to avenge Danielle's death. In the back of her Bible, Reba maintains a list of crimes committed by white people against black and native peoples.
The field referenced in the book's title is the setting for many of the book's flashbacks, and they become central to the contemporary plot lines when human bones are discovered, indicating the field was a burial ground for indigenous people. An archeologist plans an excavation. For Reba Jones, the news of the archaeological dig triggers an onslaught of memories from her past.
At the midpoint in the novel, Reba's story becomes the central focus. Reba is old and wise, she has suffered, and she has seen suffering. She is an astute observer of those who live around her—the privileged, the poor, the ignored—but she has no living relatives. Her parents, her siblings, and her beloved grandniece are dead of one thing or another: old age, cancer, or violent death.
Painted wooden statues representing Reba's dead siblings stand in Reba's front yard. The statues are ghostly and menacing to some, but familiar and reassuring to Reba. In a series of deeply reflective monologues, Reba speaks to the spirit of Danielle. Reba's memories of the past spill out, an oral history of the region and her family.
Reba explains how she and her older sister would play in the fields, and how they became acquainted with a hermit woman called Old Lucy, who lived by herself on an island between two rivers. Old Lucy, a descendant of slaves and Tuscarora Indians, recounted the history of the fields and told Reba of the crimes committed on that land against black people and the Tuscarora.
The power of the natural world comes roaring back in the final, exhilarating chapters of the novel, threatening the lives of the major characters. The worlds of Rand and Reba collide once again. In the end, Reba survives, the unvanquished heroine of the book.
There is much to praise in this compelling and finely crafted novel. Hudson delivers a first-rate thriller of a story in luminous prose that exhumes and explores the past, reflecting on community and family, loss and salvation. Indigo Field is a triumph.