“The Once and Future Witches” by Alix E. Harrow. New York: Redhook Books/Hachette Book Group, 2020. 528 pages, $28 (paperback).
It seems like only a few months ago that I reviewed local author Alix Harrow’s debut novel, “The Ten Thousand Doors of January.” However, I checked and that review was published in the Daily News in January, B.V. (Before Virus). Harrow’s new novel shares a similar small-city setting and time period, the late 19th and early 20th century, and both books demonstrate the power of family, the idea that words have power and a major concern with issues of race and gender. However, where “January” had numerous adventures exploring parallel worlds of infinite variety by finding entrance doors, this novel focuses on the three Eastwood sisters and their experiences with witchcraft.
The story begins at the spring equinox in 1893 in New Salem when James Juniper Eastwood, the youngest in the family, arrives in town searching for her two sisters, who had abandoned her seven years before because they could no longer stand to live with their father on the farm in Crow County on the Big Sandy River. The other two sisters didn’t even know they lived in the same city. Bella (Beatrice Belladonna), the oldest, is a librarian, and Agnes Amaranth is a mill-girl. June (James Juniper) deeply resented her sisters’ departure but meets both of them at a women’s suffrage rally. All three girls loved their mother, who had died, and hated their father. They also all had fond memories of their grandmother Mother Mags, who had introduced each girl to stories and rhymes that contained powerful messages for practicing witchcraft.
As June finds the women’s rally she was seeking, she has this observation: “She’s never seen a real-life suffragist. In the Sunday cartoons they’re drawn scraggle-haired and long-nosed, suspiciously witchy. But these women don’t look much like witches. They look more like the models in Ivory soap ads, all puffed and white and fancy. Their dresses are ironed and pleated, their hats feathered, their shoes shined and smart. They part around Juniper as she shoves forward, looking sideways at the sea-sick roll of her gait, the Crow County mud still clinging to her hem.”
June is a fireball and it turns out that she is wanted for the murder of their hated father. When she becomes active in the women’s suffrage movement, her sisters are hesitant at first. Bella was focusing on collecting stories and rhymes from old books, including those of the Sisters Grimm. Agnes dared to intervene to protect her fellow mill-girls against their boss, but still hoped to keep her job. When the three sisters are all present for a women’s suffrage march, the fireworks begin and magic takes over.
This quote from chapter 17 (of 45) summarizes the personal backgrounds of most of the women who join the three sisters along the way: “James Juniper is just a girl, most of the time. The rest of the Sisters of Avalon are just maids or mill workers, dancers or fortune tellers, mothers or daughters. But tonight, beneath the Rose Moon of June, they are witches. They are crones and maidens, villains and temptresses, and all the stories belong to them.” It will be the task of the three sisters to collect their stories and verses from them and from everywhere else they might be found and then share them.
As the three sisters forget their hostility and draw close again, they bond over their memories of Mother Mags and begin to sense what each other is experiencing. They also become targets of a witch hunt led by city council member Gideon Hill, who is a candidate for mayor and also has the ability to manipulate shadows of people to carry out his nefarious plans. Hill has been searching for the Last Three Witches of the West and the Lost Way of Avalon, both of which he fears will defeat him. In a previous life, Hill had burned the Last Three Witches at the stake, but he still knew that their souls and their Library of witches’ spells could ultimately defeat him.
The three sisters embark on a series of adventures and engage several other women in their cause. Some are arrested and chained in the water-soaked dungeon called “The Deeps.” Bella develops a relationship with an African-American woman, Cleopatra “Cleo” Quinn, who is of major help several times. Agnes is pregnant, and, because she had rejected any relationship with the father of her child, needs a lot of help to protect her baby during some of the violence that develops. When her baby, Eve, is born, she too becomes a major cause for the sisters and their friends to defend.
Agnes slowly becomes attached to August Lee and begins to rethink her view of the world: “She thought survival was a selfish thing, a circle drawn tight around your heart. She thought the more people you let inside that circle the more ways the world had to hurt you, the more ways you could fail them and be failed in turn. But what if it’s the opposite, and there are more people to catch you when you fall? What if there’s an invisible tipping point somewhere along the way when one becomes three becomes infinite, when there are so many of you inside that circle that you become hydra-headed, invincible?” All three sisters learn a lot from their experiences and adapt their views and attitudes. The novel also demonstrates that even before the 19th Amendment women could join together and overcome daunting challenges (and even accept a little help from men along the way.)
“The Once and Future Witches” is an enjoyable read, packed with adventures of the sisters running from one hiding place to another, seeking to escape arrest, imprisonment and even public burning. Although there are numerous typographical errors in this book that should have been corrected, my only reservation is that I hoped that the women’s suffrage movement, which started all of the action, would have been reintroduced in some way to wrap everything up.
The Halloween season is an excellent time to read “The Once and Future Witches,” and I recommend it for your reading pleasure.
– Reviewed by Richard Weigel, Western Kentucky University History Department.