Saturday, July 27, 2013

Review of Wisdom by Heather Neff

Neff, H. (2002). Wisdom. New York, NY: Ballantine Books

In Heather Neff's novel, Wisdom is not just a character trait, it is a location that holds the key to a woman's legacy, identity, and future. Maia Ransom is a nurse from Michigan who goes to the Caribbean island of St. Croix in search of the land that her grandfather always told her about.  Wisdom is the name of the estate that her ancestors lived and worked on as enslaved African people.

Despite the laid-back temperament of the island, Maia is driven by a very personal sense of urgency.  She is dying from the same ovarian cancer that claimed her mother, but has kept her illness a secret from most of the people in her life.  She has given herself three weeks to come to St. Croix and find her family history.  However, she finds her precious time slipping away from her as she runs into one roadblock after another.  Modern maps of the island seem to have literally wiped Wisdom 'off the map' and the islanders are strangely unhelpful when she seeks their assistance in locating the land.  Her only real friend is Damian, the manager of Chez Alexander, one of the finest restaurants on the island.  He too is shunned by most of the Crucians, in his case because he is gay.  They form a close bond in their shared isolation as Damian shields her from the unwanted advances of some of the Crucian men, and Maia provides acceptance and a listening ear.  The brick wall that Maia has run into on her quest to find Wisdom begins to crumble when she meets Noah Langston, a distinguished attorney and one of the few black men on the island who has made it into the upper class. Despite his upper-class education and money however, he is treated with disdain with the white monied Crucians, including the family that owns Wisdom, because he has been successful in several legal challenges that have restored land taken by slave owners to the native islanders.  He wants to do the same for Maia and as they work together, they develop a romance that Maia is reluctant to pursue, given her medical prognosis.  As Maia and Noah get closer and closer to the truth, she becomes more endangered as Severin Johanssen, the only remaining son of Wisdom's owner, and other islanders conspire to keep Maia from her inheritance.

Heather Neff is an English professor and has also worked as a translator and a language coach for film productions.  She studied French at the Sorbonne and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich and is the author of four other books.

In the spirit of Octavia Butler, author of the acclaimed classic The Kindred, Heather Neff beautifully weaves elements of the supernatural into her storyline as Maia channels the spirit of one of her ancestors in the search for her people's stolen land.  The external obstacles that she faces in her quest are paralleled by the internal obstacles that she must overcome, namely, finding the will to live and trusting herself to open her heart to love.  Neff presents a cast of colorful, fully developed characters that pull readers into the story and her research and time spent living on St. Croix are evident in her painstaking attention to detail and accuracy in describing the island's history, people, language, and culture.  Maia's journey in St. Croix ultimately saves her life and serves as a metaphor for the search for history and roots that is often an all too difficult one for the descendants of enslaved humans.  As they reclaim their history and heritage, the lives of their culture and future generations are redeemed.


  1. Great review. Very detailed. Sounds like a title I would like to read.

    1. Thanks Moxie! This was a very enjoyable read for me, very compelling and the background and historical details about St. Croix made for a great narrative.