By Anne Steinberg
Manroot opens in the spring of 1930 with Katherine Sheahan and her father, Jessie, looking for work in the tourist town of Castlewood, Missouri. Jesse gets a job as a handyman and Katherine as a hotel maid. While her father eventually embraces the drink and disappears, Katherine makes a living for herself as a maid after Freida (in charge of the kitchen) takes her under her wing. Freida begins to teach Katherine about the manroot (ginseng) and other herbs in the foothills, and Katherine discovers a natural gift for healing inherited from her Navajo Indian mother’s side. Meanwhile, one of the hotel’s regular clients, Judge William Reardon, begins to fall in love with Katherine and she with him.
I genuinely enjoyed Manroot. I read it in a number of days, not wanting to set down the book. Anne Steinberg writes with a storyteller’s voice. Her description and the mystery she leaves with the reader is masterfully done. While beautiful, the book doesn't shy away from the gritty, nasty parts of life that no one likes to talk about (such as incest, rape, racism). I fell in love with the herbalism and healing aspect of the novel, loving the way it transported me back in time to the 1940s and beyond.
The main character, Katherine, was well-rounded and well-written. She is strong but she is quiet and reserved and, in a sense, lets others walk over her. She never makes a true effort to reclaim her life as her own, but as someone who has faced severe trauma, it doesn’t diminish her character. As the book went on, Katherine is seen from others’ point of views, which I felt helped to round out the reader’s understanding of her character. Judge William Reardon, however, I did not like. I found him to be abusive, controlling, and jealous, though that fades quite a bit as the novel continues.
More and more characters are introduced as Katherine becomes pregnant with the Judge’s children. She arranges for the Judge’s sterile wife to discover them and, from there, becomes their nanny and caretaker of sorts. At that point, the storyline belongs to the Katherine’s boys and their newly introduced cousin, April.
Though I sometimes felt the characters needed more depth, I genuinely enjoyed them. I found them to be realistic portrayals, and I loved Katherine especially. I wished we had gotten to be in her head more, especially as she gets older—the more the story goes on, the more we see bits and pieces of magic and Navajo folklore, though it is never explicitly known to be the truth. I think that is one of my favorite things about the novel and something that was also very frustrating—the magic is a current that runs through the entire book but is never directly stated. The validity of the magic depends on the validity of Katherine as a narrator—is she trustworthy? Is she insane? Is this magic she performs truly happening?
Though the novel offers the reader the opportunity to make a decision about what to believe, I find myself in Katherine’s camp. I want to believe her story, I want to believe in her magic and I want a happy ending for her.
Despite thoroughly enjoying Manroot and getting caught up in its story, I never truly felt sorrow for any of the characters. I felt a sort of shallow sadness for them, but nothing that lingered after I closed the pages of the book and nothing that brought tears to my eyes. The story was tragic and powerful, but it never truly moved me, and I kept waiting for that to happen. I would say it’s the voice—detached and a grand storyteller, and though I adored the characters I never connected with any of them.
Full of sorrow and love, I found Manroot absorbing and well-written, if not a little troubling. For those who enjoy magical realism or light fantasy and a tragic story, give Manroot a shot.
Written on 24th October 2014 by Vanessa .