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Washington Post Book World
Friday, June 2nd, 2006
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The Sisterhood of Blackberry Corner: A Novel

by Andrea Smith

Save the Children

A review by Ron Charles

So many infants were abandoned in Houston in 1999 that Texas passed the nation's first "Baby Moses" law. Almost every other state has since followed suit, allowing mothers to drop off their newborns at hospitals, police stations and fire houses without fear of prosecution. Critics warn that such laws encourage abandonment and deny children access to information about their parents, but defenders point to the hundreds of babies who have been saved from probable death in restrooms and trash bins.

Andrea Smith's new novel, The Sisterhood of Blackberry Corner, begins almost 50 years ago in South Carolina, but it speaks directly to this wrenching current-day debate. The story opens when a group of men fishing along Canaan Creek discovers the body of a baby girl amid some weeds. The people of Three Sisters, an African-American community outside of Charleston, are shocked, and a meeting at the Brethren of Good Faith Hall quickly devolves into widespread suspicion and calls for retribution. But one woman, Bonnie Wilder, is more impressed by the desperation implicit in the crime. Before she realizes what she's doing, she stands up and speaks: "Instead of tryin' to find the person to lynch her up, maybe we need to get help for her. . . . Maybe folks need a place to bring they baby when things get bad. Some safe place so that they won't feel like stickin' 'em in the creek is the answer . . . .Take the chile to church . . . to a neighbor. . . . Hell, bring the babies to me.' "

That offer finds a taker just a few weeks later when a young woman leaves an infant on Bonnie's porch. To Bonnie, it's an answer to a prayer, but her husband, Naz, is dead-set against raising anyone else's child, despite their inability to have their own. And so, after a sobering visit to the county orphanage, she gives the baby secretly to a young mother in town. Soon after that, when a set of twins is left on her doorstep, Bonnie realizes she's started something more complicated than she can handle alone. She calls together her friends, "The Sisterhood of Blackberry Corner," and together they set up an underground railroad, "an undertaking as clandestine as it was blessed." Together, these proper, churchgoing women regularly break the law, placing abandoned babies in good homes without the involvement of courts or county social services.

The plight of a kind, thoughtful woman who's desperate for a baby but must nonetheless constantly give babies away is fraught with heartache, of course, and Smith explores Bonnie's anguish with deep sympathy. But despite the painful issue at the core of this story, Smith is also particularly good with light comedy: The squabbles among the Blackberry Corner women are sprinkled with wry humor, and a rocky romance between Bonnie's prickly best friend and the good-natured postman is charming.

In fact, there's a nagging self-consciousness about this story, as though it's been genetically engineered to appeal to women's book clubs. There's nothing wrong with targeting your market, but that goal may have bred weaknesses that keep the novel from developing the weight it might have carried. For instance, the plot: If there's such a strong demand for babies and they're so easily placed with good parents, why must the Blackberry Corner women break the law to arrange these adoptions themselves?

The larger problem, though, is that the novel seems unwilling to plumb the emotional depth or social implications of its dramatic story. Babies keep dropping out of the sky, but the horrible circumstances responsible for these abandonments remain distant and unexplored. Raising the specter of lynchings and recalling the Underground Railroad suggest an ominous atmosphere of racial violence and oppression, but Smith never pursues those implications. In fact, the town of Three Sisters exists in a kind of separatist utopia, where the only thing that threatens the happiness of good black people (which is to say, black women) is the moral weakness of not-so-good black men.

Toward the end, Bonnie's marriage is challenged by a melodramatic surprise that's full of bitter irony and emotional pain, but it leads her to no deeper understanding of herself. Despite the threat to her happiness, the presumption of sweetness and recovery keeps The Sisterhood of Blackberry Corner swaddled in good feeling even when it should stand up and cry out.

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