Balm: A Novel

Image of Balm: A Novel
Release Date: 
May 26, 2015
Reviewed by: 

"Balm is a powerful tale of individual loves, longings, and losses . . ."

Dolen Perkins-Valdez, New York Times bestselling author of Wench has written another powerful novel inspired by our nation’s past. Set in Chicago during the aftermath of the Civil War, Balm follows the stories of Madge, Sadie, and Hemp as they seek healing from the ravages of war. 

These three would seemingly have nothing in common. Madge is a freeborn root worker trying to make a new life. Sadie is a white widow, left with money and servants. Hemp is a former slave struggling to earn a living and find his family. Despite their different backgrounds and goals, the three share a common need for healing. In fact, they come to represent a country’s need for healing after a traumatic war that tore apart a nation.

Madge uses her knowledge of herbs and roots to treat a variety of maladies, but more often than not these ailments are physical manifestations of internal turmoil. Madge recognizes the limitations of her powers, “There was no cure for his body. This illness was in his mind.” However, Madge also comes to recognize the power of hope, “In a land so devastated by death, the best healing balm was hope.”

Madge has a special gift which allows her to touch others and sense their ailments whether it be an infected toenail, indigestion, or back pain, but she comes to realize that the people around her are not just seeking physical relief, but hope.  For some, this is hope for redemption or reconciliation.  Just as the fabric of the nation has been torn by a Civil War which pitted brother against brother—families are splintered by old hurts and misunderstandings.

Perkins-Valdez uses the occasion of the Civil War and its aftermath to explore the complexities of human life.  While focusing on the stories of her three primary protagonists, she weaves a picture of imperfect humanity longing for understanding. 

Perhaps this is best illustrated in the depiction of Sadie, the widow who speaks to the dead. Sadie’s new husband dies before she can join him in their new home. Sadie dons the appropriate widow’s black and veil, but the reader must sort through Sadie’s thoughts and emotions as she reckons with the loss of a husband she barely knew in a brand new city far from home.

Within two years of her husband’s passing, Sadie begins to hear the voice of a dead man. He tells her about his life when he was living and urges Sadie to work with him so that the widows and families of Chicago can communicate with their dead. Sadie initially calls for a doctor to make the voice stop talking but later comes to accept his presence and goes into business as a medium.

Yet this is an uneasy partnership which is reflected in Sadie’s body. When Madge is called upon to treat a boil on Sadie’s shoulder, Madge seeks the source of Sadie’s discomfort: “There was clearly a boil, yes. But what else was there? To be a healer was to see the invisible.”

As Sadie’s story unfolds, the reader comes to see the invisible—Sadie’s true motivation for working with a spirit and how this relates to her anger at her father for selling her in marriage to a virtual stranger. Sadie, like so many, is seeking reconciliation.

If Sadie is seeking reconciliation, Hemp is seeking redemption.  Hemp is searching for the wife sold away from him before emancipation. Although Hemp was named Horse by his master because he was “as strong as a horse,” he is clearly impotent when his wife is sold. 

As they parted for the last time, she tells him, “You give me a piece of myself back.” But he can only say “My scalp” in return.  He wanted to say, “Joy, woman. That’s what you give me. You my joy. Instead of My scalp.” Hemp’s inability to put his thoughts into words reflects his inability to save his wife. His search for his wife in many ways is his search for true manhood.

Balm is a powerful tale of individual loves, longings, and losses bound together by the healing balm of hope. Perkins-Valdez truly captures the American spirit. In the words of Madge, “This is what Americans do. Make something out of nothing. Start over and make a new self.”