The Bookworm: ‘Balm’ is No Quick Fix

“Balm: A Novel” by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
c.2015, Amistad $25.99 273 pages

Music almost always does it for you. After a long day, nothing makes you feel better – especially when you pair soft tunes with hot bath and solitude. You might even add a glass of something tasty and a novel you’ve been dying to read.

But in the new book “Balm” by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, the only thing that soothes is forgiveness and restitution.

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Moving to Chicago had never been part of Sadie’s plan. She’d supposed, instead, that she’d live in Pennsylvania after the War ended and go on with her life as though there was never any war.

Her parents had seen things differently, however: she was hastily married to a wealthy man she barely knew because it was safer that way. Sam purchased a house in Chicago, furnished it and hired staff in anticipation of having a wife to display; Sadie might have even fallen in love with him, had he not been killed in a train accident.

She couldn’t mourn; she barely knew Sam, which made the staff uncomfortable. As they deserted her, Sadie knew she needed a maid. The voice in her head – an insistent voice that said he was a soldier once – sent her to Madge.

Born to a woman who was more interested in being a root doctor than in being a mother, Madge left her Tennessee home as a teenager – unloved by her Mama but knowing how to use plants and seeds to heal. She couldn’t say she liked working for Sadie, but assisting with séances left Madge with plenty of time to build her apothecary and a little business. It also gave her guilty time to spend with Hemp Harrison, who said he was a married man.

Long before the day when raggedy Rebel soldiers came down the plantation road looking for trouble, Hemp had fallen for Annie and they married. Though he’d done something unthinkable, he loved her so much; after she was sold away in chains, he vowed to find her and make things right. With the War over, it was said that “millions” of former slaves had somehow landed in Chicago but was Annie among them? Was it right to move on without her?

Set during America’s spiritualist movement of the post-Civil War years, “Balm” is a bit of surprise: it’s not exactly a love story, not exactly a ghost story, not exactly a novel of amends. It’s closer to all three, and that only works sometimes.

While it’s true the author writes with extraordinary beauty, those flowingly gorgeous words can slow the story down, which often mars the romantic aspect of it. I enjoyed the ghostly storyline – I found it interesting and accurate, but the spirit’s brother annoyed me beyond all reason and left me feeling restless.

This isn’t a terrible book. It’s slow, but it has three great main characters going for it and the overall authenticity will make historical novel fans happy. But if you’re looking for something snappier and with more finality, “Balm” just won’t do it for you.
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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 12,000 books. Her self-syndicated book reviews appear in more than 260 newspapers.

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