ARUN RATH, HOST:
Dolen Perkins-Valdez wants to change our perspective on the Civil War. Her best-selling debut novel, "Wench," explored the lives of slave women - not on Southern plantations, but in a resort for slave owners' mistresses in Ohio.
Now, she's diving into the postwar period. Her new novel, "Balm," is set in a northern city where so many people, not just former slaves, went to reinvent themselves after the war - Chicago. When Perkins-Valdez stopped by NPR West this week, I asked her to sketch out the main characters.
DOLEN PERKINS-VALDEZ: There's Madge, who is part of a healing family in Tennessee. And although her family is free, after emancipation she decides to leave her home and go north to see what she calls being free-free. And there's Hemp, who is from Kentucky. And he receives his freedom papers when he goes to enlist in the Union Army at Camp Nelson. Finally, there's Sadie, who is a white woman who is married to a soldier during the war by her father. And the soldier dies in a train accident, and she ends up in Chicago. So there are these three transplants who come there and are trying to rebuild their lives.
RATH: And Sadie starts to hear the voices of the dead. And it kind of hits you right away when you're reading this novel that, with there being so many people freshly dead, Sadie's ability to converse with the dead is something that's in high demand. And that's how they meet Hemp. And he's looking for his - looking for his family, his wife.
PERKINS-VALDEZ: That's right. You know, I had always viewed Civil War narratives as segregated. There was a white Civil War narrative. There was a black Civil War narrative. And I was really interested in how those narratives converged. And my feeling about it was that the thing that we all had in common was that, at the end of the war, we were all rebuilding. There had been this great sacrifice on all sides, whether you were black or white, Northern or Southern.
So for Hemp, who is freed by enlisting in the Union Army, his main concern is finding his family. You know, we often think of that as being a separate narrative than, you know, the South and its feeling of the lost cause.
But I think there's something that all of those stories have in common, which really does have to do with rebuilding, reinvention, resilience, you know, the American story of triumph over adversity. That was something that really inspired me to think of this as a narrative that's really tangled up into something bigger than one.
RATH: You know, something unique about the American experience I'd never really thought about was - I was thinking about a character like Hemp and this period right after the Civil War where there's an entire class of people - adults - who, all of a sudden, have to wrestle with what it means to be free.
PERKINS-VALDEZ: Right. What does it mean to be free and, as Madge says, what does it mean to be free-free? Because she actually possesses her freedom papers before the war ends. For Hemp, for example, part of what it meant to be free was to be righteous, was to actually be in a universe where the system of morality was right-side-up instead of upside-down.
So after Hemp gets his freedom, the very first thing he wants to do is to give his master, who has died, a proper burial, and he says because that's the first step to becoming a righteous man. And so everyone was going through that transitional moment of - and when I say everyone, I mean all of the freed men and women - were going through that transitional moment of understanding what freedom meant for them.
RATH: You know, there's been a lot of talk about the Civil War around the 150th anniversary and people talking about how the Civil War, in a way, kind of made America what it is. Reading this book, I almost feel like maybe it's more of this period right after the Civil War - the time that you're writing about - when America really became America.
PERKINS-VALDEZ: I think I agree with that, Arun. I mean, I think that at the end of the war, that was - I mean, obviously, the war itself, which, you now, as you know, went on for four years - it was a great tragedy. But I do think the even bigger test was how we picked ourselves up at the end of it. How did we reform ourselves? How did the South deal with the legacy of having felt that it had lost it? And I think we're still recovering in so many ways, right? And so I think that there's a way in which that rebuilding is a testament to who we are as a country, because we're still doing it, but we're still sort of surviving, you know? We're a triumphant nation, and that's what I focus on. And I think about, you know, the South rising again. I think of the North rising again. I think of freed men and women. We reinvent, you know? We survive.
RATH: Dolen Perkins-Valdez's new book is called "Balm," and it's out right now. Thank you so much. This was a real pleasure speaking with you.
PERKINS-VALDEZ: Thank you. It was a pleasure speaking with you, too.
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