Book Week: "Ghost Swamp Blues" by Laraine Herring

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I'm one of those rare individuals that when someone recommends something to me, I actually pick it up.

I like to know what the people around me are into, so when a friend of mine mentioned Laraine Herring's "Ghost Swamp Blues", I sought it out post-haste. Part of my haste stems from the fact that my friend said that Herring was the most talented writer she knew, and considering that my friend is a fantastic writer in her own right, that seemed like compellingly high praise. And it's a good thing I did, because "Ghost Swamp Blues" is a great read.

It is also the kind of book I normally wouldn't read in the first place.

"Ghost Swamp Blues" takes place on a haunted plantation in Alderman, North Carolina. Shifting perspectives between a cast of female characters, it charts the suffering and repressed feelings of its residents from when slavery was rampant in the area up to the civil rights movement. One of the characters, the pink-hat wearing Roberta du Bois, was the wife of the plantation's cruel slave owner, and her snake-bitten ghost continues to haunt the plantation. Roberta's ghost interacts with and watches over the life of Lillian Green, a little girl growing up in the 1940s who witnesses something awful in the swamp, and later grows up into a silent, withdrawn woman. Roberta also watches over Lillian's daughter, Hannah, who's eager to become a musician and writes poignant, unanswered letters to her quiet mother. And there's also the Swamp Sirens, a quartet of eerie dancing spirits, lurking in the swamps and watching the characters lives unravel.

Herring's description of the swamps, with its creeping kudzu and slithering water mocassins, are deeply evocative. And her take on ghosts is refreshingly different: the wounds they receive in death continue to plague and ache them, fatal snake-bites oozing venom and hung necks chafing from rope burns. The image of ghosts manifesting and pushing their way through wallpaper is one that I won't soon forget. Her characters are well-written and each have a distinctive voice. Considering that the three leads could have easily blended together, all three being women burdened with dark secrets and unfulfilled wants, the fact that they each stand apart and are compelling in their own right is no mean feat.

I had my concerns reading it at first. I was worried it was going to turn into one of those "we women are such mysterious creatures" type book, or that it was going to turn into some tortured ghostly romance novel, or that it would get too heavy-handed with its racial subject matter. And while there is a little bit of all three elements in the book, it doesn't venture into cliché and it uses those elements sparingly.

And while this is a minor quibble: the cover art just looked a little cheesy. As a used bookseller, its the sort of thing I would probably pass on were it to land on my counters. Which would have been a shame, because it is a damn fine book and worth a read. The only other real problem I had with the book were that there were a few nagging mysteries left unanswered, esp. in regards to the nature of the Swamp Sirens. But such mysteries are a good excuse to re-read the book for possible answers, and I look forward to going back to that haunted swampland soon.

The Prescott-based Herring will be making an appearance at Changing Hands on Friday, August 13th.

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