Charles W. Chesnutt was an African-American writer who published two volumes of short stories and a handful of novels in the late 1800s and early 190s. It’s his first collection that interests us here, since it consisted of “conjure” stories set in North Carolina.
The stories revolve around an elderly former slave named Uncle Julius McAdoo. In this story, the unnamed narrator (who is white) has moved to North Carolina for his wife’s health and is looking to start a vineyard.
While visiting an old plantation that once had a thriving vineyard, he encounters an old former slave who is eating some grapes of a variety called scuppernongs. Uncle Julius tells the narrator that he once worked on the plantation and that the man shouldn’t buy it because the vineyard had been goophered (hexed).
Back when the plantation was in operation, the master was having a problem with the slaves eating the grapes, so he paid a local conjure woman to goopher the vineyard. What she did was to curse the grapes so that anyone who ate of them before they were harvested would die. After a couple of people expired this way, none of the slaves would eat the grapes.
None, that is until a new slave named Henry comes along and eats some before the rest of the slaves can warn him. Not wanting to lose his slave, the master arranges for the conjure woman to keep the curse from affecting Henry. She tells Henry that when the vines begin to put out leaves in the spring, he should rub some of the sap from one of them on his bald spot.
Henry obeys her instructions. Now Henry isn’t a young man, and in addition to being bald, he also suffers from rheumatism. But after he rubs the sap on his head, he begins to become young again. His hair grows back, his rheumatism goes away, and his stamina and strength improve. When the leaves begin to fall, Henry reverts to his old self.
This goes on for a couple of years, with Henry becoming young during the summer and reverting to his old age in the winter. Then one year, after Henry has rubbed the sap on his head and grown young again, the plantation owner sells him for $1500. Later that fall the master just happens to meet Henry’s new owner, and in the course of the conversation inquires after Henry. Upon learning that Henry has become frail, he magnaimously offers to buy Henry back for $500 dollars.
The master takes very good care of Henry throughout the winter, and for the next several years makes $1000 by selling Henry when he’s young and strong and buying him back when he reverts to his old age.
Then a Yankee comes through the area and convinces the plantation owner to try a new agricultural approach that he has developed that he guarantees will increase the grape yield. Of course, the approach fails, the vines die, and when they do, Henry dies with them. The the Civil War comes along, and grapes are the last thing on the plantation owner’s mind.
Uncle Julius tells the narrator that he shouldn’t buy the plantation because some of the vines have grown back and they’re still goophered. He’s the only one who can eat the grapes because he knows which vines are goophered and which aren’t.
Much of the story is played for laughs, especially the plantation owner’s scam of selling Henry for a high price and buying him back for a low price, and thus making a profit. The one thing that was a bit irritating about this story is that Uncle Julius speaks in dialect. That made it hard to figure out what he was saying at times.
Overall, I enjoyed the story. I especially liked the humor and how the conjuring was part of that. The dialect didn’t bother me too much once I got the hang of it.
I’m going to read some more the conjure stories. I’ve got the mass market paperback shown at the top of the page, which is out of print. I’ve had it for so many years that I don’t remember where I got it. “The Goophered Grapevine” was a nice change of pace from most of the fantasy stories you see these days. There are a number of editions of Chesnutt’s short stories, both print and electronic. An ebook version of the conjure stories can be found here.