The words, the will, the way

Someone recommended The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow, to me, and since it has won several enviable awards in a genre I like, I decided it would be my next book, but alas! the holds list at Los Angeles Public Library thought otherwise. But I noticed that her book The Once and Future Witches was available, so I decided to pass the time by reading that one first.

Three estranged sisters who haven’t seen each other for many years end up in the same town (New Salem) at the same event and are drawn together by a weird magical bond. The eldest of the Eastwood sisters, Beatrice Belladonna (Bella), is an introverted librarian who spends her days doing translation and transcription work for others while indulging herself by digging through the archives looking for fairy tale fragments, rhymes, and stories that appeal to her. It is her speaking one of these rhymes aloud that brings about the cataclysmic reunion. The middle sister, Agnes Amaranth, has bitterly accepted that she is not special or entitled, and works in a factory for a living, keeping to herself and letting no one in. The youngest, James Juniper, is the wild and impulsive one, angry with her sisters for leaving her behind with their sadistic father. When she arrives in New Salem (just ahead of the law) and encounters a demonstration/rally by the local group of suffragettes, she is inspired to join up with them, bringing her own background as a spell-caster to shake up their staid activities and hoping to turn the women’s movement into a witch’s movement. Then Bella’s inadvertent recitation of an odd rhyme has an astonishing result and, while it brings the three sisters together, it definitely isn’t anything with which the suffragettes wish to be associated. But June doesn’t let this stop her from recruiting women from their midst who are tired of never getting what they want and are willing to take things into their own hands—women who have the will, and are eager to learn the words and the way.

This book bowled me over. It tapped into some major threads, both for me personally and in the context of current events.

First of all, as have many ex-Christian women, I did my time exploring Wicca, and although I’m not a practitioner, I do have a soft spot for celebrating (or at least acknowledging) the Sabbat rituals, and this story played right into that. The idea that fragments of spells are concealed within fairy tales, legends, and nursery rhymes as a way to pass them on in plain sight with no one else the wiser is simply brilliant. And the book’s chapter headings, each of which is a variation on one of these spells, accompanied by the purpose of the spell and the “tools” needed to accomplish it, gave a delightful continuity to the story, as well as making you want to believe they are true. Likewise, Harrow’s fairy tale retellings, recast in a more feminist mode, made me think twice about story origins. I love it when an author takes the time and thought to make their magic both plausible and useful, and in this book everything is so organic to the atmosphere, the times, the old stories that the narrative just flows.

There are familiar themes from history in this book—the Salem Witch Trials (and burnings), the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the suffrage movement—but the story is something of an alternate history: Old Salem is a burnt-out ruin and New Salem is taking over its legacy; the suffrage ladies, while brave to a point, are exposed as the elitist, racially exclusive group that they were; and the author freely uses the historical context to serve her story without stubborn adherence to dates and facts, which I thought was fine in a book that doesn’t purport to be historical fiction. You find out late in the book that the action takes place in 1893, but it doesn’t really matter that much to the story, which is universal.

The thing that struck me, in reading it at this particular moment in history, is how cyclical are women’s issues, and how we keep getting trounced until we band together and learn (again) how to stand up for ourselves. We are at a place now where rich white men are once again attempting control over our options and our bodies, and the seditious revolution led by the three witch sisters in this story is a good example of what can happen when information and rebellion spreads from woman to woman, from group to group, to a whole nation of women fighting back.

I can’t say a single negative thing about this book. The protagonists are compellingly realistic (well, apart from the witchcraft, although that feels real as well!), the villain is truly creepy, the side characters contribute wonderful scenes and perspectives, and the setting is both dangerous and mundane in just the right balance. The pacing, the twists and surprises, the bonds between the sisters and in fact between most of the women, are all solid. I’m so glad I had to wait on her other book and took a chance on this one.

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