It isn’t every day that you see Gullah culture explored through the eyes of middle schoolers — unless you were a 90s kid who enjoyed the fantastic Black programming that was Nickelodeon’s Gullah Gullah Island, of course. While Eden Royce’s debut middle grade story also follows the travails of a Black family from the island, the similarities end there. Root Magic is a story about eleven year old twins Jezebel and Jay Turner set in 1963 wherein they deal with the recent death of their grandmother, what that means for their rootwork education, and coming of age.
Because the opening scene occurs at the funeral for the twins’ grandmother, we are thrust directly into the feelings Jezebel wrestles with in losing her best friend. Despite having her twin brother, she has always felt isolated, particularly at school where no one will hang out with her. As Jezebel goes through the motions of her grief, she realizes more and more how much her grandmother’s presence meant to her. This specific school year brings Jezebel increased anxiety as she is moving up a grade ahead of her brother, so when she faces bullying by the older, more financially secure girls at their segregated school, she learns there are some obstacles people aren’t meant to face alone.
Her desperation following this realization combined with the rootwork lessons that her uncle, Doc, has begun to teach her and her brother leads her to create her first spell, one to conjure her first true friend. Just when it seems like the spell is working — she’s found a true friend in another solitary girl in her grade, Susie — she learns that there may be more to the girl than meets the eye. On top of her friendship woes, her family is continually harassed by a police deputy who has led raids on rootworker families in their area for years and is rumored to have led to many of their disappearances. While Doc’s teachings help the twins to become better connected to their ancestors and their abilities to protect their family with different root work, these teachings do not seem to rid them of their troubles. Instead, it make the Turners targets of the police and Black families who look down on their ‘backwardness.’
The exploration of Gullah Geechie root work stands out in this coming of age debut novel all about embracing African heritage along with the young people the twins are growing into. I appreciated the ways the book shows Jezebel becoming more aware of burdens and worries that her mother carries, as seems integral to a lot of the experiences of my peers when we were this age. Showing the ways the family carries on tradition while grieving their powerful matriarch, even when it leads to the questioning of their identities within the larger Black community, is a discussion to be had by people of all ages.