Remembrance: A Novel

  • By Rita Woods
  • Forge Books
  • 416 pp.
  • Reviewed by Sarah Trembath
  • January 29, 2020

This moving debut puts a metaphysical spin on emancipation in America.

Rita Woods’ Remembrance takes place in a tightly knit and metaphysically constructed settlement of formerly enslaved people during the decade of terror that followed the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. It is a sweeping saga that at first seems situated in a working-class community in gentrifying Cleveland and then reaches for backstory as far into the past as the 1791 overthrow of Saint Domingue.

It stops longest in pre-Civil War Ohio for most of its storyline, which involves generations of spiritually gifted women who are intertwined with one another across time and are linked — whether or not they want to be — with their contemporaries in a struggle for dignified living.  

Woods’ narrative centers around healers, empaths, a priestess, and a few young people who have gifts that they don’t know how (or whether) to bridle and use. As such, it is a fascinating look at what it means to have some power in the most disempowering circumstances imaginable.

Though the human foils in the story are sometimes complex and, at other times, resemble stock villains and sidekicks, the book is compelling. Woods demystifies the supernatural, explicates little-known aspects of history, explores well-known histories afresh, and declares dignity as characteristic of what could be considered American history’s most abused women. And — with the exception of a slow start — she tells a story that will make you keep reading about the people and places she creates.

Most of the book is set in or near Remembrance, a free-state settlement not far across the Ohio River. It is a place at once ragtag and profound. Its inhabitants are few in number, but they barely got there at all after their various journeys out of that carceral hell known as slavery.

Thus, Remembrance’s founders — Abigail and Josiah — set it up as a culture of mutual support and survival. It has a protective “Edge” that keeps residents safe from the outside world. Abigail created this Edge with her formidable ability to get inside of objects and energies and re-form them to her desired ends. But she may not be able to do so for as long as her people need.

Beyond the miracle of freedom, nothing too special happens within Remembrance. People get along well enough and go about the business of living. But after maintaining the Edge and leading the residents of the place for some 60 years, Abigail begins to age. Questions arise about how or whether the settlement will remain protected, and its time-space-visibility dimension is crossed not once, but twice.

Through a revelatory plot that unfolds in four parts, readers must consider the limits and possibilities of things supernatural as well as the psychological effect of slavery. The focus of Remembrance is on psychic genius — the rare abilities of a select few, recognized and developed in service to a few more. But throughout, mental anguish is omnipresent, rendered in a manner that is weighty but never engenders pity.

What makes this book unique and worthy of readers’ time is this dual exploration into trauma and resilience. Abigail, for instance, can shape the atmosphere, bend matter, and harness the forces of nature. But agonizing memory plagues her. The afterlife tempts her to consider death as a release from pain.

There are many tensions like this, and Woods’ navigation of them is masterful. She is especially comfortable in the realm of things that are usually part of mystical traditions. At one point, for example, a character who can “diagnose” illness hugged her sister and felt disease:

“…spread up her [own] arms and into her chest, turning the world to shades of muddy blue and gray, souring the spit in her mouth. She could taste the bad moving through Veronique’s lungs, filling them with poison.”

Another character could “see the pieces that made up a thing. And if she focused hard enough, then that thing — a table, a tree, this chicken — became just particles spinning in space in the shape of a table, a tree, a chicken. And if she focused really really hard, she could change the way the particles spun.”

Moments like this always feel natural in Remembrance, for author Woods is a physician and studied quantum physics in order to write the novel.

Her characters manage their inner turmoil even in danger, where respite is brief and protection feels tentative: the comparative privilege of the house slave, intuited trust between strangers, a few moments of connection with someone with some empathy and a rifle. Remembrance has much to say about vulnerability.

The subject matter and its nuanced treatment place this first-time novelist in Butler, Naylor, and Morrison’s territories. Remembrance is an achievement. But that’s not to say that it is — literarily — on the level of Parable of the Sower, Mama Day, or Beloved.

Readers of Remembrance might find themselves thrown off by coincidences that seem a bit too easy. They might wince at dialogue that sounds inconsistent or, sometimes, too modern. They might feel that the narrative occasionally invokes sentimentality for effect.

But they may also envision that staged quality as big-screen potential. In Remembrance, Rita Woods has created characters for the ages and a glimpse at a seemingly impossible world made very real.

Sarah Trembath is an editor, writer, performance artist, and educator. Her work has appeared in the Santa Fe Writer’s Project Quarterly, the Rumpus, Everyday Feminism, Sally Hemings Dream zine, Azure literary journal, DCist, and the Grace in Darkness anthology of DC women writers. Her first book, a collection of poetry and prose on coloniality, race, and class, called This Past Was Waiting for Me, came out in 2018, and her chapbook of poems, It Was the Scarlet that Did It, came out in 2019. She is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia and Howard University in DC and is on faculty in the Writing Studies Program at American University.

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