An Interview with Dolen Perkins-Valdez

  • By Joye Shepperd
  • November 20, 2015

Balm is a fragrant ointment used to soothe; Balm is a story about three people struggling to overcome the past and rein in the future.


Dolen Perkins-Valdez set her latest novel, Balm, in post-Civil War Chicago. The three main characters (two black, one white) have moved to the city in search of new lives, peeling away the cruelties of their respective pasts for a chance at renewal. Their journeys move them through the aftermath of the terrible war between a divided nation to a city that is at once welcoming and stingy. Balm is a love story, a story of forging friendship and forgiveness, a story of coming to terms with loss and inevitability.




You did quite a lot of research, and yet it seems that this story could have been in your imagination. How did the research impact the book?

The research really enhanced the story I was trying to tell about life after the war. I was very interested in Chicago as a space where people went to reinvent themselves, so I spent a lot of time trying to recreate the city down to the very last detail. 

You’ve picked the perfect place in history to tell this story; it allows just enough room for your characters to travel without the overwhelming burden of leftover cruelty from the war and slavery. Were they just lucky, slipping beneath the radar of society? Do you think there were more folks than readers could imagine who simply eked out a quiet living after the war?

Well, Chicago wasn't really a place for people to eke out a quiet living. Cook County contributed tens of thousands of men to the war effort and it also prospered from the war industry. I wanted to choose a city that was both peripheral to the war battlegrounds but also absolutely central to the effort. And, of course, Abraham Lincoln was from the state of Illinois and, after he died, his funeral procession went right through Chicago. My characters witnessed that.

Sadie is white; Madge is black. Who has the deeper wounds and yet the kindest character?

Both of these women have their burdens to bear, and I would hesitate to say whose wounds are deeper. The book is really about the healing of families, and each woman is working to heal a rift within her own family. The familial scars in the book are intended to be a metaphor of the nation's scars. 

“Fatherhood was another book to bind.” It’s careful work that takes tender care. Too bad there isn’t a book with some foolproof recipes on parenting. None of the parents in Balm are terribly interested in parenting and yet are blessed with children. If you knew Madge’s aunts and mother, what’s the one piece of advice you’d give them?

Oh, this is a really fun question. I think I would tell them that sometimes children know best.

“The pleasure and joy of complaint” sounds like all some folks have to hold onto, to talk about. Madge is so far ahead of her time. Please tell readers a little bit about how the rest of her story goes.

Madge is raised by her mother and her mother's two sisters, who provide healing tonics and teas. The three sisters have managed to attain their freedom before the war due to their unique medicinal abilities. But the women are so accustomed to surviving on their own for so long that they are very unwilling to allow this girl-child to disrupt the sisterly bond that has ensured their survival. So Madge leaves them and travels to Chicago to make a name for herself. Once arrived, she begins to work as a maid in Sadie's house and also meets Hemp, a married freedman who is really her first true love. 

“Ain’t no healing brew between your legs” is exactly the kind of advice that one will test just to see. The three sisters seem to have so little experience with men, how would they know to give this advice to Madge?

The sisters are generally distrustful of men, and it is their very lack of experience that causes them to generalize that all men are unworthy of their attentions. It is devastating advice to Madge, however, because she is a young woman susceptible to all the romantic notions of any young person. 

“[The] greatest irony in their condition is such beauty.” Maybe it’s supposed to be a consolation, but how often do we take note of the beauty around us?

I hope we all stop to take note of the beauty around us every chance we get. But I believe it was an act of extraordinary humanity for an enslaved person to be a witness to natural beauty. The darkness of their experience must have colored everything around them. Yet Hemp still manages to find solace in the sound of a river and the noise coming from a horse's throat. 

In your acknowledgement, you say that fiction has a lot of ground to cover to catch up to nonfiction, but isn’t it fiction that tells the story, breathes life into the so-called facts?

Yes, I absolutely believe that fiction can breathe life into the facts. A good historian can, too, by the way. 

Would you recommend a book or two to our readers?

I recommend Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade. It is a wonderful historical novel. I really love historical fiction. 

Joye Shepperd is senior features editor at the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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