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The Healing by Jonathan Odell has everything you could want in a book club selection. Rich in mood and atmosphere, it’s a warmhearted novel about the unbreakable bonds between three generations of female healers—from Antebellum Mississippi to the Great Depression—and their power to restore the body, spirit, and the soul. In this essay, Jonathan Odell discusses what inspired him to write this remarkable novel.
Where I come from, you ask a man, you get the facts. You ask a woman, you get the story. As a child, I was no fool. I hung out with the women.
At family reunions, their province was in my granny’s sweating hot kitchen peeling potatoes, boiling collard greens and ham hocks, and swapping family tales, while the men sat on the porch quoting from the farm market report. Before church the women gathered in the sanctuary, catching each other up on small town gossip while the men stood out on the concrete steps, smoking cigarettes and catching each other up on college football standings.
In my own home Daddy was in charge of the checkbook, continually adding and subtracting, making sure the bottom line balanced to the penny. Mother, on the other hand, was in charge of the picture box, a tattered Keds shoebox stuffed full of family photos that spanned five generations. I’d pluck them at random and say, “Tell this one, Momma.”
When my mother narrated a snapshot she didn’t just tell of one particular day. Each photo was a vital thread in an intricate web of stories that revealed the essence of who we were, indeed, why we were.
An uncle killed in Korea, then a picture of his son—a near duplicate—with his own boy; depression-era dirt-farm poverty, then the first family automobile, shiny new; and skeletal, half-starved girls who later show up beautiful and buxom, with beauty parlor perms. There was direction to our story and it leaned toward hope. No single event was so burdensome or shameful that it could not be redeemed. The women who preserved my family’s history taught me early the truth in that old saying, “facts can explain us, but only story can save us.”
At mid-life, I was reminded of this again. I was living in Minnesota, thinking I had turned my back on my native Mississippi forever. I had become a successful, hard-nosed businessman. I had committed myself to learning the “how to” of gaining money, power and position. Knowledge was simply a means of getting more stuff. And it worked. I mastered the how to of the material world. But there is another old expression. “True sadness is getting to top of the ladder of success and realizing it is propped against the wrong wall.” The way my life was heading, all that was left to do was more of the same, only bigger and better. I came up against the paralyzing realization I was long on how, but short on why.
As my dissatisfaction grew, voices came to me at night when I lay awake in bed. Women’s voices, strong and southern, tempting me with stories, calling me back home.
For more from Jonathan Odell and The Healing, visit his website.