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IN A THING WITH FEATHERS? In
her new novel, The Root Worker, Rainelle Burton challenges the nature
WORKER is a hard novel to read. On the surface it's hard because
it tells of the life of Ellen a young girl growing up in Detroit
who is punished every day of her life for being alive. She is an
awkward girl who wets the bed and then the floor when the bed is
taken away and she is shunned by almost everyone. But the the true
anguish comes in the power of Burton's writing to make you realize
that Ellen could easily exist in the world today. According to the
author, hope is Ellen's enemy, it is only when Ellen gives up hope
and takes charge of the harsh reality that has become her life that
she is able to fly. This is a stunning work. Bold and unflinching,
just like the author.
How did you come to write this particular story? Was it something
you needed to write?
I was compelled to write the story of root working for the sake
of my own sanity. I know that world quite well because I once lived
in it--still live in it to the extent that I'm close to some of
the people who never left. I also live in the 'conventional' world,
and know it well. And so, most of my life has been one of moving
in and out of both and never speaking of one to the other because
neither, I came to realize, can even conceptualize, much less understand,
the other. It's a bothersome thing. My silence on the root working
world was most bothersome to me because I could at least discuss
and critique aspects of the conventional world while there, but
the secrecy of root working prevents discussion even within that
world. So I tried to write about it (nonfiction), but discovered
there was no language for explaining such a world as the understanding
of language is predicated on point of reference. I found myself
trying to explain and qualify and the explanation often further
corrupted the reality of what really was. How can you explain a
root working world in a language whose reference point is convention?
The only way to present that world, I discovered, is by taking the
readers there and plopping them down in the middle of it all to
see what words can't tell. And the only way I could see doing that
was by recreating that world through fiction.
CA: Your book put
me in mind of Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina, which was
also a difficult book to read because the lead character never seemed
to get a break. The Root Worker, is also, in some ways, difficult
to read for the same reasons. There is a feeling of helplessness
for the characters, that any empathetic reader feels, but at the
same time there is hope, however sparse. How do you see the role
of hope in your story?
RB: It's funny that
you asked this question because it demonstrates so well the difference
between the two worlds and the problems with language and point
of reference that I mentioned in my answer above. Hope in the larger
role is almost always seen as an answer or remedy to the problem
presented. In this story--and in the real world of root working--hope
IS the problem. And a paradoxical one at that, as a sense of hopelessness
is the condition for exploitation by root workers (and others) in
the first place, and at the same time, hope is what perpetuates
the sense of despair and exploitation. People turn to the Root Worker
because they have hope for a way out of poverty and despair, turn
to religion out of hope for salvation,... Even the reader has hope
that Ellen will be saved by someone or something--her faith, the
nuns, social worker, Barbara, even by her own sense of hope. Ironically
(it's ironic only in sense of the larger world), it is always by
letting go of hope that she finds relief: she gives up hope and
lets James have his way with her, and he stops, lets go of her hope
in God and is saved ("being nothing is like Glue" ), lets go of
her hope in Glue itself, and finds relief, and loses hope in Barbara
and saves herself. It seems that it's hope that keeps everyone stuck
and helpless. They can't get out because they're stuck in their
own hope. I see this a lot in that real world, too: people stuck
in a vicious cycle of hope that keeps them from getting out, moving
away from the despair: hope for a miracle, for relief, a savior....
But then, Ellen returns with new hope in tearing down that world
and rebuilding it. I think the role of hope here is that the only
tangible hope is in actually abandoning that world and beginning
anew. Hope born out of that world can only bring despair.
CA: On the matter
of hope, do you see hope as being different from faith, not necessarily
religious faith. For example, Barbara seems to have a lot of faith
in herself and her ability to overcome and in some ways she tries
to pass this on to Ellen.
RB: I see faith
as somewhat different, but faith and hope can also have similarities.
Faith is different from hope in that much of its base is some tangible
outcome or measurable proof that provides the means for a reasonable
expectation. Hope--which is void of what is tangible or measurable
and has no means for reasonable expectation--is based almost solely
on what is needed or desired. Your example of Barbara and Ellen
illustrates both, the differences and the similarities between faith
and hope. Barbara's faith in herself has at its base a measurable
means for reasonable expectation: a relatively normal beginning
(supportive and understanding adult), education (funded in part
by her uncle), economic stability (also supported by her uncle's
estate) and a sense of acceptance--if not complete inclusion--in
a world outside of one that is defined and restricted by poverty
and desperation. It seems that what Barbara tries to pass on to
Ellen can be defined as what she HOPES for her, since there is no
measurable means for reasonably expecting Ellen's life to turn out
as well. At the same time, hope presents itself as faith to Barbara
because much of what Ellen tells her or does not tell her about
herself is either false or only partially true: from her name (Shirley)
about Clarissa, her friends, etc... Even when Barbara is confident
that she has won her trust, Ellen presents her with another lie
("Fell in some bushes"). It seems that the one vehicle for overcoming
in the novel is her alter-ego, Clarissa, who is viewed by everyone,
(including Babara until the very end), as a symbol of Ellen's pathology,
rather than her ability to transcend what is pathological through
CA: The characters
in The Root Worker are so vivid, how much of what you wrote about
in the book is experience, yours or other peoples, and how much
is from your imagination?
RB: This is my most
frequently asked question, and the most difficult to answer after,
"What is your next book about?" If you asked, "Is this story autobiographical?"
I could simply answer that it isn't. But within the context of the
question asked, I'll have to give a more complex answer. None of
the EVENTS in the story ever happened to me or anyone I knew. They
were mostly from my imagination. I say mostly because I did actually
witness the root working rituals in the novel, and the reactions
and effects that they provoked. So the rituals and their symbolism
are real. The references to Catholicism, such as indulgences, purgatory,
Eight Beatitudes, etc. are real and from my experience (I'm an ex-Catholic).
I think it was necessary to present them as they actually are because
there attempts to fictionalize them would at least border on the
absurd. The setting (a Detroit neighborhood) was real in terms of
its historical (the mass exodus of Catholic institutions, businesses,
jobs and the middle class from Detroit in the mid-1960s), cultural
and socioeconomic context. In this, I used what I knew as a base
for presenting and developing the framework for the story. All of
the characters and other events are from my imagination. They're
not drawn from or fictionalized versions of anyone I have ever known
in my past or present lives, including myself. The creation and
development of each one took longer than it took to develop and
write the entire story, especially their voices. I'm often asked
why I didn't base the novel on people who I actually knew, or on
my own experience. That would have been fine, except experiences,
whether it's our own or those of people we know, carries an emotional
attachment, which we ultimately write from. We see the world we
are describing according to how we feel about and judge our experiences
and shape and frame the story accordingly. I had too many questions
that I needed to find answers to going into the novel. As much as
I knew about that world, there was just as much as I didn't know:
How is it that such a world continues to exist even today? Why can't
people see what it's doing them, to their children? Why the need
for secrecy? To explore these questions, I needed to separate the
story of how I experienced and judged that world to look at it for
what it just is: in its entirety without the distortion of my feelings.
I could only do that by creating new events and people with different
ways of seeing that world that could take me where I wouldn't otherwise
have been able to go.
CA: You mentioned
being an ex Catholic. I am Catholic and I always joke that once
you're a Catholic you always use that to define yourself: former
Catholic, recovering Catholic, lapsed Catholic, returning Catholic.
Do you find that to be true?
RB: I think former
is more appropriate than lapse or recovering Catholic, as the latter
seems to suggest an affliction of sorts that I'm struggling for
control over, or something that I'm in the process of surviving.
Returning Catholic suggests just that. I can't say that any of the
terms--including 'ex-Catholic' is what I use to define myself because
I did not choose to become Catholic, it was decided for me when
I was a child. So it didn't have an earth-shattering impact on my
life, didn't leave me with anything that I had been looking for,
or that I long to have again. It just was, and I have no regrets.
I've tasted that wine and decided that it wasn't for me and moved
on. But some aspects of the experience has helped me to grow and
evolve--as has the many former and present things in my life--beyond
what is defined by the experience itself.
CA: From your answer
about where you got you ideas from, it seems that the Root Worker
is a real phenomenon? In the book the Root Worker has a serious
hold over Ellen's mother, why does she choose to give herself over
to someone who is so primitive?
RB: Actually, root
workers are a fairly modern phenomena, originating in northern cities
in the 1930s. It is often confused with voodoo, which it is derived
from. Voodoo is a real African-based religion that is based on an
all-powerful God that the voodoo priest (or priestess) serves as
a medium. Root working is absent of religion, except for the occasional
claim that God is powerless to help what only a root worker can
do. Although root workers borrow from many of the symbols, terms
and rituals used in voodoo, their meaning and use is distorted,
changed and made-up as they take cues from the response, fears and
desperation of their 'clients'. So what a root worker does is not
an old African-based ceremony or ritual, but a half-remembered,
half-made-up version of what is interpreted as voodoo. Although
the root worker in the novel (and those in real life) appears to
be primitive, they are actually sophisticated modern con people
who are excellent at analyzing people's weaknesses and manipulating
their hopes and fears. Ellen's mother and others give themselves
over to her so willingly because they see no other hope.
CA: Your use of
the game of tag, with it's safety of "glue" in the book works so
well, what made you decide to use it as a frame in the book?
RB: It was a popular
game of tag in Detroit in the '60s and '70s. What made Glue so safe
was that it was everywhere, and could be anything that you could
imagine at any time: a clump of grass, a crack in the sidewalk,
a tree, fence.... Glue was a chameleon, always changing, always
safe, always there as long as you could claim it before you were
tagged. That's why it was so popular, and why kids were so sure
that they wouldn't get tagged. It was what felt self at the moment.
It was a metaphor for whatever way that Ellen could make herself
feel safe. As I got into the story, I realized that the meaning
of Glue could change metaphorically, too, and so I played with the
theme: for being stuck between visible and nothing; the substance
that holds Ellen together; stuck in one place.... I liked the changing
metaphor and decided to play with it, and others as well: weeds,
the color blue, purgatory. It was a fun and challenging thing to
CA: The character,
if you can call it that, of Clarissa is an incredible idea, what
were you thinking when you decided to use her? Was she there from
the beginning or did she develop as things went on?
RB: Clarissa was
there from the beginning. I knew that the story wasn't to be so
much about Ellen as it was to be about her world. Ellen represents
so much of the reality of that world and its effect on the individual,
though, and it's often mentally and physically intolerable to those
who don't conform to it. Here we have a paradox again. In that world,
the victims are those who fit comfortably in it and for whom it
becomes tolerable. But they have a sense of being victimized by
those whose lives they make intolerable--that's why they are so
brutal. Ellen couldn't tell the whole story if she felt her own
pain; it would have been too much to ask of her. But she could if
she detached from the pain (dissociation or 'splitting') by transferring
it to someone else. That someone else became Clarissa, who not only
absorbed the pain, but also bore her guilt and provided other relief
(Glue) as a companion, confidant, and later as a real person became
the real family that she never had and a link to hope in a world
away from the one she left behind.
CA: What do you
hope readers will take with them from your story?
RB: I learned a
lot in writing the book. I'm still learning as the questions that
it raises--my own and others' such as yours--push me to dig deeper
for answers that I wouldn't have looked for. So every question that
I answer opens up a bigger picture: about that world, about language,
the human condition, even about myself. It's an amazing thing because
just when I think there's nothing else to discover in the book,
another question brings a whole new flood to wave through. The only
drawback is that it keeps me preoccupied when I should be working
on my next book. It's taken me to places I would never have been
in looking at the world and myself. Thank you for the experience.
That's what I want the reader to take from the story: lot's of questions
and a whole flood of stuff to wonder about, answers to seek. A whole
new world to discover, especially about themselves. That would be
an amazing thing. If the reader can discover something new about
themselves, within themselves: a new question, an answer... I'd
say the book is good. That would be too cool.
But the biggest for my money,
And the saddest for my throw
Was the night I seen the gopher man
Throw dust around my door.
Come sneaking round my doorway
In a stovepipe hat and coat;
Come sneaking round my doorway
To drop the evil note
I run down to Sis Avery's
And told her what I seen
"Root-worker's out to git me
What you reckon that there mean?"
"Ballad of the Hoppy-Toad"
There is a world of trespass in Rainelle
Burton's striking debut novel, THE ROOT WORKER. Told from the point
of view of an eleven-year-old girl coming of age in a Black, working-class
neighborhood in the Lower East Side of Detroit in 1960, this is
a novel in which everyone's ties to one other at every level of
family and community are sickly to the core, and nobody honors boundaries.
Cantankerous neighbors, smiley-faced sexual predators, and bitter
rivals in love walk in and out of each other's yards and homes,
sprinkle dust spiked with bad intentions on people's porches and
in their underwear, and consume themselves with each other's business.
Poised on the threshold of adolescence, our narrator Ellen quickly
learns that the most permeable and least honored of these boundaries
is a young girl's body.
Ellen lives with her mother (whom she calls
"The Woman"), her father (called "The Husband"), and her two brothers,
James and Marcus. Through Ellen's bewildered and tormented eyes,
we experience firsthand the chaos, drudgery, and cruelty of her
family life and the strangeness and distance of the institutions--particularly
the Catholic Church, to which Ellen is so innocently devoted--that
fail to protect her. At home, The Woman is aggrieved that The Husband
is stepping out on her (a trait shared by most of the men in this
story). The Husband is a passive fellow who quietly withstands The
Woman's violent tirades and gives her nothing to fight with, so
The Woman turns her withering fury on the handiest scapegoat, her
daughter. Ellen is awkward, meek, and mystified by the changes of
menarche, none of which is helped by the fact that she wets the
bed. The Woman decides that Ellen is the source of her family's
malaise. After Ellen's brother, James, rapes and impregnates Ellen,
The Woman (thinking The Husband is the father of Ellen's baby) submits
the girl to an abortion, then drags her to see a Root Worker to
cast out the demons that are surely tainting her family.
The Root Worker is a terrifying figure,
her physical presence wisely underdescribed by Burton so that we
can shudder along with Ellen as we try to imagine what this woman
might be like. We never catch a complete view of her in broad daylight,
but her damasked presence is felt throughout the book. A root worker
is a folk remedy practitioner of what Rainelle Burton terms "dereligionized
voodoo," employing roots and herbs to cast or remove spells,
heal physical complaints, and drive evil out of a possessed person.
As Burton explains it, "People go to root workers when even
God can't help." Root working sprouted up in the 1930s in several
black urban communities as well as some rural portions of the South.
One such urban hub for root working is Burton's hometown, Detroit,
where the tradition is practiced to this day. "I started to write
about root working as nonfiction," says Burton, "but I couldn't
get any cooperation. Even people I knew who lived there denied it
existed." One recent episode of root working (which is rarely reported
in the media) emerged from Detroit, where a naked woman was found
walking on a freeway, carrying her baby, whose eyes had been gouged
out (ostensibly at the recommendation of a root worker).
For Ellen, The Root Worker's laying on of
hands is somewhat less damaging than the loss of sight, but it is
no less traumatic. Some of what The Root Worker gives Ellen induces
painful hallucinations. Sometimes, she is forced to drink tonics
cut with urine. No matter what The Root Worker prescribes, The Woman
follows through, punctuating Ellen's ordeal with beatings and verbal
lacerations. To remedy The Husband's straying, the Root Worker sells
The Woman special dust, which can bring untold tragedy to those
The Woman casts it on. The Woman casts it on The Husband's mistress,
boldly entering the mistress' house and cuddling her children, all
the while dashing small pinches of evil into the mistress' underwear.
Tragedy ensues. Deaths accumulate. Most
of the male figures can be counted on to grab at Ellen's breasts.
Even Ellen's Aunt Della, The Woman's sister and a major piece of
work in her own right, picks a grotesquely inappropriate way to
express her contempt for The Woman. It seems that there is no safe
place--not home, not the church (where the nuns can be as cold and
cutting as The Woman), not the friendly store (where the shopkeeper
Mr. Julius offers Ellen the first kind words she ever hears about
her looks before forcing himself on her), not even sleep (the only
time when Ellen's body is able express its outrages by leaking urine).
The one thing Ellen longs for is a safe
place, a place she calls "Glue," where no one will touch
her or yell at her. That place might be found in a glamorous and
mysterious neighbor named Barbara, who takes an interest in Ellen
when she finds her pulling weeds. The Woman, Aunt Della, and others
call Barbara a "cila woman," which is a sort of hussy
with unnatural powers of seduction. Barbara, however, is far more
grounded in an actual morality, more rooted in her own church and
her own sense of self than anyone else in the story. It is she who
reaches out to Ellen. Significantly, as Ellen gets to know Barbara,
she begins weaving the roots she's pulled from the ground into little
rings--a fragile embodiment of their tentative friendship.
This is not the first story in which an
adolescent or pre-adolescent girl has served as the locus of natural
and supernatural upheavals in a family (witness "The Exorcist,"
"The Amityville Horror") or a community (the Salem witch
hysteria comes to mind), but it is certainly one of the more harrowing
accounts of how a girl tries to swim through the cultural hysteria
and hypocrisy of her family and her society. Burton has said about
her novel, " It's about the whole dynamics of this community, where
the line between religion and superstition can become very blurred."
So blurred at the lines that Ellen addresses her stream of thoughts
to Clarissa, whom one assumes at first to be Ellen's imaginary friend
or perhaps a dead sister or other relative. In a supernatural tale,
Clarissa would be a ghost. Yet when James helps himself to Ellen's
virginity, she bears the moment as she does every other outrage
visited upon her--passively, witnessing her rape and impregnation
from a remote location in the dank basement where it happens. As
Ellen's body becomes the family battleground, it becomes clear that
Clarissa is a fragment of Ellen's self, the one who absorbs the
abuse as Ellen drifts through her adolescence in a haze of helplessness.
She does not consciously lash out or act up, but she cannot stop
wetting her bed. So deep are the wounds of intrusion that she is
unable wake up in time to empty her bladder. The gaps in her sense
of self are so great that she can only leak out her pain when she
is disconnected from her body.
The community surrounding her seems locked
in low expectations, ignorance, and poverty--evil as a mundane byproduct
of despair. Interestingly, while almost all the men are sexual miscreants
of some sort (with the exception of Marcus), they are passive and
predictable in their behavior and easily dismissed by the women
as sorry-assed, testosterone puppets who just can't help their urges.
The women, on the other hand, are magnificent and complex monsters,
be they Aunt Della (who delights in needling her volatile sister
at the worst possible moment), The Root Worker (more a subtle enabler
of people's weaknesses, and therein lies her true power) or The
Woman, who is the most remarkably drawn and complex character in
the book. Because we experience The Woman through the prism of Ellen's
fear, affection, and awe, we experience her complexities on the
most intimate scale. So absorbed is she in her own pain that she
cannot recognize that her daughter suffers as much for her mother
as she does for herself. After Ellen's abortion, The Woman lashes
out at her from the core of her own narcissistic wounds:
"Girl, you just don't know how hurt
feels," she said to me when I told her how it hurt to walk
after they book the baby out. "Knowing you carried something
for all that time, and giving it birth and taking care of it all
these years just to see it turn out like you. Can't tell you how
it feels. Wait till you go through what I go through and then tell
me how it hurts."
How Ellen comes to understand the limits
of her mother's humanity demonstrates how desperately sad even the
most gracious and genuine forms of forgiveness can be. Nothing can
assuage or take back what Ellen has been through. She can only endure
them and move on.
My quibbles with the book are few. One serious
problem that I had with the book, the large number of tragedies
that accumulate in and around Ellen's family, I pretty much chucked
by the wayside when a friend called me up last week to tell me that
in one day, one family member had developed a pancreatic tumor,
another had been diagnosed with a form of the disease that poor
kid had in LORENZO'S OIL, and a third had suffered an abrupt onset
of narcolepsy--her very first bout--and wrapped her car around a
pole. That's all in one day, in one family. At least Ellen's misfortunes
manage to stretch out over months.
My other quibble involved the sketchiness
of Ellen's brothers, who only appear to help move the story along.
Marcus almost seems like a sporadic guest in the house until the
final pages of the book, when he suddenly falls into relief as a
human being with some observations of his own to offer about the
family. Ellen seems to have very little to say about the satyrish
James, whose baby she carried and lost.
Still, Rainelle Burton's first novel is
a solid, mature, and well-written first effort--a bold step taken
at her mid-life (she has just turned 50). She has described the
process of writing THE ROOT WORKER as a matter of allowing herself
to hear what Ellen had to say. The process of listening to and translating
Ellen has generated a narrative with a clear, consistent voice that
will not be stilled. There is a distressing fragmentation, loss,
reintegration, and recovery of Ellen's self that takes place before
her voice can transcend adversity and sing her tale. Ellen's song
is dissonant, fractured, syncopated, yet oddly lyrical, and it makes
for a fine overture to a very promising literary career.