Stormwitch, by Susan Vaught, is an amazing book. Set in the context of Hurricane Camille and the civil rights movement in Mississippi in 1969, it has elements of both fantasy and historical fiction.
Ruba lived in Haiti with her maternal grandmother, Ruba Cleo, who taught Ruba the traditions of the women warriors of Dahoney, Africa, from whom they are descended. But when Ruba Cleo dies battling a storm sent by the Stormwitch, Zashar, Ruba has to move to Mississippi to live with her paternal grandmother, Maizie Jones.
But the Mississippi of 1969 is a far different world than Haiti. It’s an explosive world of civil rights and desegregation and the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a world where a black person could be killed for crossing the wrong person. And Grandmother Jones is very different from Ruba Cleo, or at least she seems to at first. She wants Ruba to become a good Christian and to give up the “witchcraft” she learned from Ruba Cleo. She also wants Ruba to keep her head down and say “Yes, ma’am” or “Yes, sir” when talking to a white person. But Ruba, a descendent of proud African warriors, can’t do either, as much as she wants to please Grandmother Jones. Soon, Ruba finds herself fighting evil on two fronts, as she runs afoul of the local Klan wizard, just as the Stormwitch approaches with the most powerful storm that Ruba has ever known.
A powerful story told in an accessible way, Stormwitch brings to life both the devastation of Hurricane Camille and the horrors of segregation. It’s a stroke of brilliance to show a segregated Mississippi through the eyes of a strong black female, who not only grew up away from the culture of segregation and discrimination, but who has the pride that comes from knowing that she is descended from a long line of female warriors. The contrast makes the horror of being a black person in segregated Mississippi that much more real. And through Ruba’s grandmother and friends, we also see the perspective of the people who did grow up there, people who are trying to change things in their own way.
And in the wake of last year’s Hurricane Katrina, the story of another hurricane that devastated the Gulf coast is so much more meaningful than the author could have envisioned when she wrote this book. I recently read several reports from librarians who attended the ALA conference in New Orleans. The stories that they told of the destruction of the area, and the stories of the courage and dedication of the residents who are trying to rebuild, brought tears to my eyes. Stormwitch tells a parallel tale, of another devastation and another rebuilding, almost 40 years ago.