Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson
INDIGO FIELD. By Marjorie Hudson. Regal House Publishing. 410 pages. $22.95.
Marjorie Hudson’s debut novel is so beautifully written, so powerful, so true and so haunting that it’s hard to come up with one adjective sufficient to describe it.
Suffice it to say that if you’re making a list of the best novels ever set in and written about North Carolina, Indigo Field belongs somewhere near the top. And although Marjorie Hudson was neither born in the state nor grew up here, she’s undeniably an integral part of North Carolina’s strong literary community.
Indigo Field is many things – a contemporary story, but rich with history that goes back generations; a novel with a compelling plot and strong characters, and also a book about nature and its powers that are far stronger than mere mortals; a tale of very real human actions, deeds and misdeeds, and at the same time a spiritual story that deftly blends the beliefs of ancient indigenous people with Biblical ones, both Old Testament wrath and retribution, and New Testament grace and forgiveness.
It’s a thoroughly North Carolina story through and through, both in the history it evokes and the contemporary changes and conflicts it portrays.
Most important, Indigo Field is a delightful book to read. Once you enter the world Hudson creates, once you meet the characters, you won’t want to leave until you know how things play out.
Rand Lee is a retired Army colonel who, to please his wife, settles in a posh retirement community in a part of central North Carolina south of Chapel Hill that seems a lot like Chatham County (Hudson calls it Ambler County). Rand grew up poor in West Virginia, and he’s never felt comfortable or successful in the world he inhabited as an officer and the husband of a general’s daughter. He scorns the artificial lives he believes his new neighbors are living in their latter-day Southern splendor, makes little effort to befriend them and regularly lies to his wife, sneaking around to run in the countryside despite his serious heart problem.
But it’s his wife, Anne, who shocks him by dying first, dropping dead on the tennis court one day when he’s out running. Rand is utterly bereft, lost, filled with guilt about all the ways he let Anne down and unable to imagine how he will live without her.
Ruby Queen Esther Jones, known to all as Miss Reba, lives on a humble farm across the highway, not far from the retirement community. She’s Black, but, like so many in central North Carolina, also with Native American blood and memories. Miss Reba is grieving the murder of her beloved great-niece, Danielle, by the “whiteman” she’d been living with. “Whiteman” is what Miss Reba always calls them, and she’s wary of their kind, with good reason. That “whiteman” has gone to prison, but not for nearly long enough. His son, T.J., a scrawny 14-year-old who thought of Danielle as his mother, witnessed the shooting but was afraid to testify. The state is having a hard time finding anyone to take him in, and Miss Reba is reluctantly talked into fostering him, even though none of her former foster children had been “whiteboys.”
Miss Reba has visions of things past and things to come, and she reveals some of her long-buried secrets to Danielle’s spirit.
Rand Lee and Miss Reba live worlds apart, even though in reality the only things separating them are an abandoned field and a farm where a young widow, Jolene, ekes out a living while caring for Bobo, her 19-year-old son who has Down Syndrome.
The disparate worlds of Rand Lee and Miss Reba literally collide when a distracted Rand jogs into her ancient, rusting car, causing a surprising amount of damage.
Meanwhile, a crew working on a bridge over the river that runs by the farm and the field finds human bones. Archaeologists, including Rand’s more or less estranged son, will be coming to investigate further. Only Miss Reba knows the secrets that field holds, the crimes that have been hidden there.
As all these people are dealing with their problems, conflicts, past injustices, grievances and hopes, the spirits in the field awaken. Nature is also at work: The ancient pines on the ridge above the field, the birds, the winds – all have a presence, a voice.
The story plays out with death, cruelty and vengeance, but also ultimately with forgiveness, newfound friends and family, justice and grace.
Marjorie Hudson’s biographic information says that although she was born in Illinois and grew up and went to college in Washington, D.C., she got to North Carolina “as fast as I could.”
She moved to a rural area much like she describes in her novel. She learned a lot by writing freelance magazine articles, and she became familiar with some of North Carolina’s finest contemporary novelists when she worked as a copy editor for Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. She has an MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa and has published short stories and essays. She does her adopted state proud.
I have just one minor quibble with the book, one that most people will not even think about. As someone from a military family, I wanted to know how Rand, who joined the Army as a private and had not been to college, married a general’s daughter and became a colonel, even though he never went to war. That would not be easy, and I kept expecting to learn more.