cover image WISDOM


Heather Neff, . . Ballantine/One World, $24 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-345-44743-2

A family legend draws an African-American nurse from Michigan to the sultry Caribbean island of St. Croix in Neff's gutsy first novel. Maia Ransom, the descendant of slaves who worked the St. Croix plantation of Wisdom a century and a half ago, visits the island for three weeks to investigate the stories told to her by her grandfather. Braving native scorn and lecherous pursuers, Maia insinuates herself into the life of the last Wisdom heir, Severin Johanssen, a nasty layabout and drunk who is dying of liver cancer. Maia is dying, too, of ovarian cancer, and finds herself strangely sympathetic to the plight of the objectionable Severin, who possesses the deed to the once grand, now dilapidated estate. Maia elicits help from local black lawyer Noah Langston, who unearths evidence proving that Maia's grandfather was really the legitimate son of a love marriage between the freed slave Zara Ransom and the white owner of Wisdom, Jakob Johanssen. Suspense builds in the form of a burgeoning romance between Noah and Maia, jealous jockeying for Wisdom's ownership on the part of greedy white descendants and the ultimate race for time before death claims the main characters. Neff has fashioned a contrived plot in which random threads are destined to be spun together too neatly, but her characters convince, especially the island natives hostile to outsiders. The author knows the violent beauty of the island and wisely avoids romanticizing its racial tensions and brutal history. Choosing a main character who is doomed from the outset is tricky, but Neff pulls it off with somber, brave conviction. (July)