In small-town 1930s Alabama, Hoodoo Hatcher is an unmagical twelve year old born into a folk magic family. It’s embarrassing enough to not be able to do a simple spell when your name is Hoodoo, but it could be downright dangerous when the Stranger comes to town looking for a boy with that name.
Hoodoo is an incredibly unique book. Which makes it memorable and interesting, but also a bit challenging to discuss. How do you classify it? Hoodoo is decidedly set in the past, and some elements are very evocative of the time and place. But it’s also definitely a magical book. The magical elements are not simply magical realism – spells have effects (although not flashy ones) and the existence and efficacy of hoodoo are generally accepted in the town.
There are many creepy aspects. Astral projection occurs a few times, and messages and items are sent from beyond the grave. Lives are in danger, people are possessed, cemeteries are dug up. I find it challenging to classify MG horror since it’s so much less scary, but my sense is that this would mainly fall into horror, with aspects of historical and fantastical fiction that make it a good entry point for readers of those genres.
Parents may wish to take note of several aspects. Hoodoo swears. Not profusely but he curses several times during the book. He does find this wrong. Stealing also occurs and is discussed as wrong, but doesn’t really have any negative results. Hoodoo keeps important information from the grown-ups he otherwise trusts, in retaliation for them not telling him about how his father died.
Consequences are all over the spectrum. Some things Hoodoo does are barely a blip on the radar, while others have devastating, life-changing results. For some young readers this could be confusing, but others might find this a mirror of real life.
Characters die and previous deaths are also discussed, including death by lynching. The presentation felt accurate to me but sensitive readers or those unaware of historical fact might find that those aspects disturbing. Graves are also looted and corpses dismembered. Real-world ailments are induced by magical means.
Magic in this world is a curious blend of Christianity and more so-called occult beliefs. Both are pretty equally believed and equally effective. Hoodoo’s Mama Frances (his grandmother who he lives with), Aunt Jelly, and his grandmother’s separated husband Pa Manuel are all Christians able to incorporate the dual belief systems. This was very new to me and inspired a bit more reading.
The use of French and blending of belief struck me as a uniquely New Orleans culture. However, other areas such as Haiti have some similarities and Alabama is not too far from NOLA, it’s entirely possible that parts of the state have a similar feel.
There were many scary parts of this and while the main storyline is fully resolved, there were several bits and pieces that felt unfinished. I also was confused by how ignorant Hoodoo was about the magic his family practiced. Did they intentionally leave him out, like not telling him about his father? Or was he just not interested in grown-up things and didn’t understand what they were doing?
I was also uncertain about the depiction of Hoodoo’s birthmark (a prominent heart shape on his face. Nothing stood out as wrong, but it also felt a bit gimicky. I’d be interested to read what reviewers with facial markings thought of this aspect.
The family set up was wonderful though – always refreshing to see different types of families represented. A separated but still married couple is an unusual family structure. Less unique but still important is that Hoodoo has a female best friend. There are indications romance might be in their future, but the story thankfully doesn’t turn that way, because more depictions of healthy male-female friendship are needed in MG lit!
I did feel that this was still MG-appropriate, but definitely skewed toward the older end of the spectrum. Typically we think of middle grade books as appealing to children from 4th grade up to 8th (and the rare title interests high school students). While individual students can vary greatly, I couldn’t really see using this as a whole-class text below sixth grade. Exercise caution with sensitive readers.
That said, I would still recommend this. Not quite in line with my personal interests, but I think fans of the Jumblies series, horror readers who want to try historical fiction, or historical fiction fans okay with a dark fantastical narrative would enjoy this.
Although there were some flaws, an enjoyable debut, and I’m looking forward to trying Smith’s more recent novels.