Redwood Phipps is an African-American girl. Aidan Wildfire Cooper is a Seminole Irish young man. The two are brought together by a hateful act of racial violence, which affects both of them for the remainder of their lives. But both are determined to keep the event from defining them. In Redwood and Wildfire, Andrea Hairston follows these characters as they live, grow, learn how to navigate the world in which they live, and challenge what they can, in order to create the world in which they want to live.
Spanning 15 years and ranging from a small community in rural Georgia to the metropolis of turn-of-the-century Chicago, Andrea Hairston paints a moving, joyful, and disturbing portrait of our past and a mirror of our present. She doesn’t shy away from the racism that was, and continues to be, rampant in our country and our culture, nor does she allow her characters to be defined by it. Hairston explores the various types of entertainment that existed at the turn of the century, including minstrel and wild west shows, vaudeville, and a motion picture industry in its infancy. She illustrates how the songs and stories of minority cultures were mined, adapted, co-opted, and often perverted for the enjoyment of white audiences. She also allows her characters to both strain at, and conform to, those confines in the hopes of being able to perform the material they want in the way they want to do it. This is particularly true of Redwood, who regularly challenges the confines placed on her regarding everything from her speech, her dress, the songs she sings and the stories she tells. Everything she does is with an eye on making her world into the one of which she dreams: a world where she can be who she really, truly is regardless of others’ expectations.
Likewise, Aidan navigates carefully between his dual identities of being Irish, and therefore white, and Seminole, and therefore “colored.” He has grown up with people not knowing what to make of him because he doesn’t fit easily into their preconceived categories of society. And he has been told his entire life that he needs to ignore and forget his native ancestry, whose stories and songs have always been a source of comfort. Then, suddenly, in Chicago, he is valued for his “exotic” appearance and his ability to portray the dominant culture’s idea of what an “injun” is in motion pictures. While it allows him to make more money than he’s ever been able to in more traditional jobs, he finds the work physically taxing and demeaning in ways difficult to articulate. Aidan, too, longs for a world where he can simply be his true self.
While Hairston does not turn away from the darkness of the world, neither does she limit herself to it. Her portrait of our world is also filled with wonders, both scientific and cultural, illustrating how vibrant, varied, and rich our world is made by the differences of the people that inhabit it. The resulting novel is much like life itself, moving between soaring heights and despair defining depths, bridging the gaps between those two extremes with hope, resilience, and just a bit of powerful magic.
Redwood and Wildfire is a novel of creation, destruction, and most importantly of all, possibilities.
Read an interview with Andrea Hairston here.