Rainelle Burton

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In her new novel, The Root Worker, Rainelle Burton challenges the nature of hope.


   The ROOT 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.


Carlye Archibeque: How did you come to write this particular story? Was it something you needed to write?

Rainelle Burton: 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 her imagination.

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 do.

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.



Rainelle Burton
Overlook Press



bk root worker

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?"

--Margaret Walker,
"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.

Amélie Frank



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