Blackbird House is a difficult book to describe, but if you’ve read anything by Alice Hoffman you know her books can be a little unusual. She has a poetic, mystical way of writing. Instead of complexity and nuance, you get emotion and spirit and beauty. I’ve read a lot of her books but I think this one’s my favorite.
Blackbird House, published in 2004, tells the story of a farm house in a remote area of Cape Cod, from the War of 1812 to the present time. It’s a collection of short stories only each story is connected to the land, the house, and sometimes to each other. Each new inhabitant learns the stories of the people that lived before them.
The book opens up with the women of this small Cape Cod town sending their men off on their annual fishing expeditions. This year, there is even more danger than usual because the British have placed an embargo on the ships of the Cape.
Every May, the women in town gathered at the wharf. No matter how beautiful the day, scented with new grass or spring onions, they found themselves wishing for snow and ice, for gray November, for December’s gales and land-locked harbors, for fleets that returned safe and sound, all hands accounted for, all boys grown into men. Women who had never left Massachusetts dreamed of the Middle Banks and the Great Banks the way some men dreamed of hell: The place that could give you everything you might need and desire. The place that could take it all away.
I’ve never been to Cape Cod, but this book is so evocative in its description of the land and the house, that you really feel like you’re there. Hoffman repeats a lot of her imagery throughout the book, like the mysterious white blackbird, the blood-red pear tree, and the sweet peas that the first owner of the farm plants as she’s waiting for her husband to return from sea.
I love the way she evokes the sense of time and history so subtly. In the opening story, the brief mention of the British embargo and the fact that the men face Dartmoor Prison if they’re caught is all she writes to set the scene. Yet her book takes us from Civil War to World War II to the sixties and we always know where – and when—we are.
Hoffman doesn’t write about love the way we think about it, with all its bumps and subtleties. Love for her is something bigger, grander. It’s an emotion that sweeps away everything else and leaves you powerless. And that’s what her stories are about: love and family and passion and strength. She uses magical realism to convey the power of these emotions. The stories in this book can be devastating; Hoffman doesn’t spare her characters when it comes to sadness. But somehow they are all part of the cycle of this farm and the land. In other words, the story is much bigger than any one individual.
I don’t generally read short stories because I prefer one long story. But this book gives you the best of both. Each story is beautiful and powerful in its own way, and each one connects to the next. Some will resonate for you more than others. For me the most moving story was the last one. It’s about Emma, who returns to her childhood home, planning to sell it. Emma’s life is a mess, and somehow it all seems to hinge on the fact that she beat cancer as a girl. Everyone thinks her life is a miracle, only she thinks something got irrevocably lost in the struggle and she’s spent her life wondering who she might have been.
The boy looked at Emma as though he could see her clearly for what she was: a fool who wasn’t even grateful to be alive.
It’s like Alice Hoffman got into my head and twisted it into a knot. I swear I could hardly breathe. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the thing about Hoffman. You’ll be thinking about this book long after you read it.