Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire is a fascinating and strange piece of historical fantasy. While the concept of a fantasy relating to the early twentieth century entertainment world is not unusual, nor is the portrayal of the situations of marginalized people, this book represents an excellent mixing of both concepts.
The title refers to two of the lead characters. The first is a strong woman with a family history of magic as well as a burning desire to move beyond her starting place in life. She is literate, indeed a volume by Pauline Hopkins is a recurring point within this tale. There is strength and desire, as well as an ongoing fear of the overall situation, a knowledge of the difficulty of the world around them which does not stop her as she continues to struggle towards what she wants.
The other half of this pair is Wildfire, also called Aiden. He is an alcoholic, from a family that claims its own magic and is white or light skinned, which further complicates matters, especially considering the early 20th century setting and that most of the other characters are dark skinned; the problems of antimiscegenation laws and general bigotry are obvious.
In a simultaneously rough and believable struggle, Redwood moves north while planning to make a living one way or another, perhaps as a performer. After some time Aiden sobers up and follows after her. Hairston subverts the obvious cliché by making this only a sliver of the story, as the tale simultaneously shows Redwood and her living situation. In addition it manages to continue on long after their reunion, with a more effective and heart moving conclusion following as the reader sees them attempt to make a place in the allegedly tolerant Chicago area.
There are many little notes which show great research by the author, particularly related to the movements made into the arts by marginalized peoples. While much of this takes the form of specific namedropping, there is also a delightful feeling of the general situations that they found themselves in.
While a romance is definitely key to the story, a secondary element involving one of the characters could easily upset the story. Aiden heads to look for Redwood, and throughout the middle portion spends time travelling with her Redwood’s younger sister, and she makes semi frequent attempts at romance with him for a while. The reading could be uncomfortable for some, although the fact that Aiden seems more bemused than serious about the situation does a great deal to make it clear that nothing sexual will occur.
There is a delightful afterword that helps to explain the process that led an author known for her Afrofuturism to write a relatively low key historical piece, and how that motivation in turn led to the final product. While not strictly necessary to appreciate the book, this afterword is a delight for anyone who wants to understand the writing process.
Overall, Redwood and Wildfire is easy to recommend. While not perfect to a current sensibility, it nonetheless provides an excellent look at what the world was like for certain people in a certain time and place. At the same time there is a delightful bit of added wonder, a strange and delightful magic that feels entirely appropriate. Heartily recommended.