Review of “The Once and Future Witches” by Alix E. Harrow

It’s hard to pin down the genre of this book, which at first just seems like a fantasy about witches. But it is so much more than that, including historical fiction, magical realism, a story of relationships between family, friends, and lovers, and perhaps most interestingly, a manifesto on feminist sociology and politics.

The central characters are three sisters, Agnes, Bella, and Juniper, who grew up with a cruel abusive father – “a mean drunk with hard knuckles who never loved anything or anyone as much as he loved corn liquor.” Their mother died during Juniper’s birth. Their grandmother, called Mama Mags, was a healer who taught the girls about herbs and spells. Back home, Juniper explained, “every mama teaches her daughters a few little charms to keep the soup-pot from boiling over or make the peonies bloom out of season.”

Mama Megs used to tell the girls fairytales of all kinds, and the girls remembered them as “doors to someplace else, someplace better” (harkening back to Harrow’s first book, The Ten Thousand Doors of January.) She told them that magic would never be totally eliminated “because it beats like a great red heartbeat on the other side of everything.” She also said that proper witching was “just a conversation with that red heartbeat, which only ever takes three things: the will to listen to it, the words to speak with it, and the way to let it into the world. The will, the words, and the way.”

But the words – how to find them? The sisters discover the words are hidden in plain sight, in places like children’s verses and stories, and in sewing samplers: “power passed in secret from mother to daughter, like swords disguised as sewing needles.”

James Juniper Eastwood, at age 17, was the youngest and wildest of the three sisters. She somehow survived alone with her father for seven years after her older sisters left without a word and with no further communications. It hurt her, the way “they’d just walked off the edge of the page and vanished, a pair of unfinished sentences….”

At least she had Mama Mags. When Mama Mags died in the winter of 1891 though, there was nothing to hold Juniper back from doing what she thought she had to do and leaving town, arriving in New Salem by train on the the spring equinox of 1893. Upon disembarking, Juniper was surprised to see her picture on wanted posters all over the train platform. She was accused of murder and suspected witchcraft. She thought: “Hell. They must have found him.” She also saw posters for a women’s enfranchisement meeting at St. George’s Square, and was drawn to it.

At the suffrage meeting, Juniper heard the women talk about equality and she understood immediately what they were really asking: Aren’t you tired yet? Of being cast down and cast aside? Of making do with crumbs when once we wore crowns? Aren’t you angry yet? Indeed, Juniper certainly was.

Agnes Amaranth Eastwood was the middle sister, five years older than Juniper and the strongest of the three. Agnes worked hard in a New Salem sweatshop where woman were exploited for their labor, tied there by their desperation for money.

Beatrice Belladonna Eastwood, called Bella, was the oldest sister, and the wisest of the three. She had been a librarian in New Salem for the past five years.

Agnes and Bella hadn’t known they lived so close to one another. But once all three sisters were in the same place, the older two simultaneously experienced what Juniper did: “an invisible kite-string stretched tight between her and her sisters, thrumming with unsaid things and unfinished business. It feels like a beckoning finger, a hand shoving between her shoulder blades, a voice whispering a witch-tale about three sisters lost and found.” Thus, Agnes and Bella also felt the pull to go to St. George’s Square.

“Execution of Bridget Bishop at Salem, 1692,” illustration by Joseph Boggs Beale. circa 1885

When the three came together, they, along with the rest of the town, saw a vision of the tower of the Lost Way of Avalon, fronted by three circles woven together. Bella had seen this interlocking shape before, and knew to whom it belonged: the Last Three Witches of the West.

Bella was able to identify the vision because she spent her free time in the library searching for “the words and ways to call back the Lost Way of Avalon.” According to Mama Mags, the Lost Way of Avalon was “some great construct of stone and time and magic that preserved the wicked heart of women’s magic like seeds saved after winnowing.” She would ask Bella with a wink: what is lost, that can’t be found, Belladonna?”

The three started to work with the suffragettes, and in the process not only reconnected to each other but formed new relationships with others in the town.

Juniper discovered there were other women who wanted to tap into women’s magic again and gain strength through it. This subgroup began to meet in secret, calling themselves The Sisters of Avalon, and strategizing about how to bring back the words and ways. They performed little public demonstrations of magic and left “The Sign of the Three” behind – the three interlocking circles.

Bella developed a relationship with Cleo Quinn, a black woman who shared her interests in both suffrage and witchcraft. But Cleo mostly worked with a society of black women, “The Daughters of Tituba,” that the women had formed out of necessity, [Indeed, there is a historical basis for racist attitudes by white women in the suffrage movement. On one occasion Susan B. Anthony even asked Frederick Douglass not to attend a gathering for women’s suffrage in Atlanta, Georgia because, as she later recalled: “I did not want anything to get in the way of bringing the Southern white women into our suffrage association.” In this book, one of the characters explained, “some worry that the inclusion of colored women might tarnish their respectable reputation; others feel they ought to spend a few more decades being grateful for their freedom before they agitate for anything so radical as rights. Most of them agree it would far more convenient if colored women remained in the Colored Women’s League.”]

Agnes had a new entanglement as well, and hers would change the lives of all the sisters.

Over time, the sister’s quest to understand and realize their potential as women received an unexpected boost not by “witch-blood,” which they concluded wasn’t a thing, but by what many might claim was the greatest magic and source of strength: the power of love. Love came to each of them in different ways, conferring “teeth and talons” while also opening them up to an altogether new sort of risk.

Discussion: Women have always needed words and ways to survive in what has for so long been a man’s world, in which men have power not only through physical strength but because of their political, social, and economic advantages they have worked hard to maintain. The author’s creation of a women’s movement in New Salem allowed her to explore issues relevant to women (many of which remain problematic), even down to the lack of pockets in women’s clothes and the ideological tyranny behind that convention. She exposes not only the racial divide in the feminist movement, but the way oppressive gender and sexual norms affected (and continue to affect) women. She tackles the hypocrisy and co-optation (false consciousness, we say now) of those (both men and women) opposed to more freedom for women, and the way language – like the accusation of witchcraft – was and is still used to manipulate the populace to resist any change, particularly in women’s status.

As for the matter of witchcraft and magic, certainly there is at the very least magical realism in the book, but readers might also understand it metaphorically. The labeling of women who want their rights as “witches,” and the methods resorted to by women trying to undermine and overturn that tyrannical suppression, has always been real, and this story just adds depth and color to the conceit.

Evaluation: Alix Harrow is certainly one of our most creative contemporary writers. Her stories give readers so much to think about, and her facility with language is impressive. She isn’t afraid to transgress the boundaries between reality and fantasy while always leaving readers with the option to look past the magic and find the truths about power, relationships, and society underneath.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Redhook, an imprint of Orbit, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2020

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4 Responses to Review of “The Once and Future Witches” by Alix E. Harrow

  1. What a coincidence! I just started reading this book last night! I’ve been a teeny bit leery of it just on the basis that Alix Harrow’s writing tends to veer into didacticism in a way that I’ve found offputting in the past — but I love a story about sisters, so I’m going to at least give it a good try.

  2. Jeanne says:

    This does sound interesting.

  3. Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf says:

    Wow, I’ve had my eye on this book but wasn’t sure it was for me. I’m going to have to get to it soon because your review has won me over!

  4. stacybuckeye says:

    528 pages! I’m not sure I have the necessary concentration for this right now but am marking it for later 🙂

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