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The Conjure Woman, a Book to be Read

The Conjure Woman, a Book to be Read

In noticing the story of "Hot Foot Hannibal" in a recent number of the Atlantic Monthly, mention was made of the fact that a collection of some of the negro dialect stories of Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt was in the press, that story being included. The promised volume has been issued, and "The Conjure Woman"–that being the title being given the collection–is heartily commended to those who have not read the stories as they appeared disconnectedly in the magazines. Those who have already read them will find a new interest in these tales when thus brought together and their connection established.

The fact that Mr. Chesnutt is a resident of Cleveland gives a local interest to the book, but its claims to special consideration do not rest on that, nor even to any great degree on the fact that the author of those stories of southern negro characteristics has a slight racial connection with the people to whom he has gone for his themes. That kinship, slight though it be, has enabled Mr. Chesnutt to enter more fully into the negro character, to study it from the


inside, as it were, while the cleverest of the white delineators of the southern negro, although familiar with his people from childhood, can yet only study him from the outside. The strain of dark color in the blood may be so faint as to be almost inappreciable, yet, consciously or unconsciously, it influences everything Mr. Chesnutt has so far written. It is responsible for the minor note that runs through the richest humor of the tales in this book. It was the inspiration of that striking sketch, "The Wife of His Youth," which is not included in the present collection because in theme and treatment it lies outside of the collection. That tale dealt with an ethical problem, and its tragedy was unrelieved by any touch of humor. The tales in "The Conjure Woman" have an unctuous humor as rich as the best of any tales of the southern negro that have appeared, but there are suggestions of tragedy in most of them, all the more impressive from the apparent unconsciousness of the old negro narrator that anything else was to have been expected. It was part of the slave life and was accepted as such; escape from it being impossible, and protest worse than useless.

There are seven stories in the collection, all having their motive in the negro belief in "conjuration, goophering, bewitching." The thread on which the stories are strung is furnished in the opening tale of "The Goophered Grapevine." The reporter of the tale, a northern man from the region of the great lakes, was advised by his family doctor to seek a permanent residence in a warmer and more equable climate for the benefit of his wife's health. Being engaged in grape culture in northern Ohio, he removed to North Carolina and purchased an abandoned vineyard in that state. On going to examine it an old negro, Uncle Julius, was found to be living as a squatter on the property, and, it was afterwards discovered, had been marketing what grapes could be gathered from the neglected vines. The negro, who had been before the war a slave on the land, strongly advised the northerner not to make the purchase, because "de truf ov de matter is dat this yer ole vimyard is goophered." Then followed the story of the "goopherin'" by "ole cunjuh 'oman," told with a humor all the more delicious from the solemn earnestness of the old darkey, and his seeming thorough belief in the deadly power of the "goopher" laid upon the grapes by the "conjure woman." The story failed of its purpose, for the vineyard was bought, but Julius lost nothing by the transaction, for he was engaged as coachman, and there were reasons for suspecting that he still had all he wanted for his own consumption of the delicious "scuppernon' grapes," for, as Julius said, "ef dey's anything a nigger lub nex' ter 'possum en' chick'n, en watermillyums, it's scuppernon's. Dey ain' nuffin' dat kin stan' up side'n de scuppernon fer sweetness; sugar ain't a suckumstance ter scuppernon.' W'en de season is nigh 'bout ober, en de grapes begin ter swivel up des a little wid de wrinkles er ole age–w'en de skin git sof' en brown–den de scuppernon' make you smack yo' lip en roll yo' eye en wush fer mo'; so I reckon it ain' very 'stonishin' dat niggers lub scuppernon'."

In each of the half dozen stories that follow, old Julius had a scheme of his own to further by telling, and generally attained his object, although it is not until the tale is done and the reporter of the story finishes the sequel that the scheme of the sly old darkey becomes apparent. The opening story is pure comedy. In the others there is more or less of the tragic element. It would be unfair to the author to give anything of their plot. Each story is complete in itself, brings out a new phase of negro character and a different illustration of the conditions and superstitions of the race in the old days of slavery and ignorance, but in all the power of the "conjure woman" is the dominating feature. Although "The Conjure Woman" has been published but a few days it has already achieved a decided success, both with the critics and the reading public.–Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston: The Borrows Bros. Co.