Last year I read and fell in love with Ten Thousand Doors of January , Alix E. Harrow’s debut novel. So when I was given the chance to join the blog tour for The Once and Future Witches I jumped at the chance. Grateful thanks as always to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for my invite.
This book is astounding. Let me just get that out there right at the start!! Set in 1893, in New Salem, it is the story of three sisters. Born in poverty, with an unpredictable and abusive father the Eastwood sisters are used to living on their wits. Bitter necessity and circumstance have divided them but now they are unexpectedly reunited and there is change in the air.
As the novel begins James Juniper Eastwood, the youngest and most fiery sister, has arrived in New Salem. She is a fugitive, wanted for murder and witchcraft in her home town. A chance and strange meeting brings all three sisters together.
The sisters, James Juniper, Beatrice Belladonna and Agnes Amaranth are currently divided by circumstance and fear. Beatrice is working as librarian, Agnes is a mill worker. Unlike their rebel sister they are trying to bite back the witchcraft and power of their ancestry and keep a low profile in a city which has a history of persecution of witches. For New Salem is build on the site of Old Salem, and in this novel Old Salem was burnt to the ground at the end of the infamous witch trails hundreds of years previous.
New Salem is currently is in the midst of political change. Fighting a mayoral election is the unsettling and shadowy figure of Gideon Hill whose proclamations against witchcraft create fear and suspicion. And at the same time there is a powerful call to arms by the women of the city, as the suffragette movement grows and women all over the world begin to call for the vote.
When Juniper joins the fight despite her sisters’ initial reluctance and fear, despite the differences between them, their sisterhood and their shared inheritance come together. Women across the city from all backgrounds, classes and racial divides start to rediscover their lineage.
Women’s very names reflect the legacy of their parents. Each women has two names; their first name is given by their father, but their second and more powerful name is given by their mother. Juniper from the beginning shuns her patriarchal name, taking the maternal line and embracing it. Beatrice, on the other hand moves between the two, changing as the novel and her experience progress.
The power of women past is found in the words passed down from mother to child. Fairy stories are redefined by their very nature as Witch stories and the women of New Salem begin to reclaim their power. The words muttered by grandmothers and mothers are reestablished as spells and retellings. They pepper the narrative, giving it a rich sense of history and being, grounding it in folk lore and all our shared histories. And they give the women power to rise up.
Here they find the power of women, encapsulated in their shared oral history. There is true and grounded sense of women reclaiming a power lost to them.
Women’s rights run throughout this novel like its life blood and in every form. This unique narrative encompasses all manner of women’s issues . It faces head on issues of gender, sexuality, abortion, equal pay, sexual harassment and domestic violence. In a seamless and powerful story, fantasy and history are woven together. For example just like in the historical record of women’s struggle for suffrage there is disagreement and discord about the way to proceed.
Alligences are uncomfortable and there is mistrust even between the three sisters and others; take, for example, the mysterious black lover of Beatrice, Cleopatra Quinn. The reader is forced to continually question who such characters really are, what is their motivations and where do their loyalties lie. Equally the chaos these women create in their wake has more than echoes of the disruption caused by the ‘real life’ suffragettes. The witches network of safe houses, and constant movement between sympathetic patrons reflects Mrs Pankhursts days of evading arrest by flitting from house to house.
It is worth noting and indeed important to do so, that this novel doesn’t offer up a clear divide on the basis of sex. Throughout the novel witchcraft is not portrayed as solely the device of women. Men can practise witchcraft too. But the important take away from this novel, the message that we have seen time and time again throughout our history is that when it is practised by men, that is, when men have the power, it is some how sanctioned. The power and the possible corruption that comes with witchcraft is allowed for men. This story encapsulates that long held and still present double standard; that power in the hands of men is expected and strong, in the hands of women it is somehow tainted and unnatural.
This novel is a handbook of female power and rebellion. In modern times when the outgoing President of the US says openly there will not be a socialist female president this novel feels like a mystical call to arms. I am tempted to send Kamala Harris a copy.
And there is more…
For further reaction and reviews of The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow check out the rest of the Blog Tour below…