Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire published in 2011 by the Aqueduct Press won the James Tiptree Jr. Award in the same year. The book is narrated by a mysterious person who never mentions his/her direct identity. The book is enriched with a dazzling but somewhat painful story about an African American woman Redwood Phipps and Seminole Irish man Aidan Wildfire Cooper who journey through life. Hairston’s voice and style help elevate the book to a higher level which doesn’t necessarily satisfy the readers at the end, but it sure leaves behind unfinished feelings about the characters and what will happen to them next.
It is quite difficult to summarize the plot without spoiling the story itself, so readers please be alert there will be some spoilers followed this book review.
The story takes place in the rich swampland in a fictional town called Peach Grove, Georgia. The book opens with Redwood Phipps’ family running away from a lynch mob which kills her mother as the result. Aidan Wildfire Cooper, a Seminole Irish boy, is the one to find the dead body and is haunted by the fact that he could not save the poor woman, even though he was only a teenager at the time. About ten years later Redwood is a now maturing woman who is coming into real magical power, “a hoodoo conjuror”, just like her mother. Aidan is a dysfunctional alcoholic with two ruined marriages due to his drunken abuse. However, together they create greater powers. Redwood captures the power of a thunderstorm, and this special power is used by Redwood throughout the book. It is clear from the narrator that Redwood and Aidan are meant for each other, to be one another’s soulmate. Though Redwood inspires Aidan to get through his alcoholism, and he inspires Redwood’s magic to get stronger, but none of them thinks love is a possibility and dares to express their real feelings towards the other partner due to the difference in races.
Eventually Redwood is assaulted and raped by a powerful white man, Jerome Williams. In defense, Redwood kills her offender with her “storm hand” by breaking his neck right when Aidan came to her aid. Buried in humiliation and pain, Redwood needs to flee town as soon as possible with Aidan’s help. Aidan feels shameful, for he was unable to prevent harm coming to someone he loves. He covers up the assault and killing by telling the town Jerome Williams fell in love with the beautiful Redwood and ran away with her to keeps the town from pursuing her Redwood.
Redwood, on the other hand, tries to recover from the painful experience and ran off to Tennessee first. She joins a traveling musical group with Eddie and Milton as a singer and eventually makes their way to Chicago. After some years and the death of most of Redwood’s family back in Georgia, Aidan takes Redwood’s little sister-Iris and journeys first to New York then joins her in Chicago. There they stay with George, Redwood’s and Iris’ older brother, who is already established with his own family and business. Redwood and Aidan finally feel more free to admit their feelings for one another, yet they are haunted by the traumas they thought they had left in back in the swampland. Redwood’s rape has led to her inability feel sexual pleasure, and Aidan is still haunted by failure and guilt from his past.
Both Redwood and Aidan join the film industry with Redwood working chorus and “African savage” parts and Aidan taking lead roles for the play “Noble Indian Savage”. Eventually they turn to the growing black middle and upper class in Chicago. At the end, both Redwood and Aidan finally admit their feelings towards each other while getting caught in a dangerous fire. Standing between the line of death and survival, they have nothing to lose but to admit their true feelings. There is no satisfying end to the story, but it must be Hairston’s intention to leave her readers’ imagination to wonder what will happen next to the couple.
Redwood and Wildfire describes the costs of racial discriminations as well as class and social boundaries such as lynching, segregation, rape, alcoholism, and the abused arson of black businesses in Chicago. Furthermore, the book shows the intensity of a love, lust, greed, struggles, betrayal, and guilt mixture presented in the characters. The novel expands its spectrum of racial tension by amplifying that the issue is much more complicated than just the surface. Aidan’s mixed-race heritage also shows problems for both the black and white communities.
The novel describes the characters’ progress as they move and journey their ways through life. Redwood moves forward in her life, trying to escape her dark past, getting herself out of the swampland, taking control to learn magic, achieving and enjoying her successes in Chicago. Moreover, the magical storm hand is a metaphor for Redwood’s character as she grows and learns to control both herself and her power to become a more mature and independent women. Aidan takes control over his alcoholism and dysfunctional life, travels to a better place where he can achieve more success in both life and love.