The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow
There were once witches, and there will be witches again.
In 1893 (what is it with this year and literature??), there are no witches, but the three Eastwood sisters—broken apart and coming back together—are determined to make things better for womenkind. To regain the power that was lost, and the respect that had been buried down into the ground. But dark forces are afoot, and there are those who want to keep women weak and submissive…
Whew. Took until the 50% mark to get hooked, but hot damn was I hooked.
That we aren’t going to get a damn thing by asking nice and minding our manners. That we need to make use of every weapon we have, or they’ll beat us bloody in the streets.
In a slightly alternate United States, where the great witch burnings were a pretty damn big deal and made a lasting impression on society because they burned real witches and buried a real city, women have been subjugated by men and their innate ability to practice magic has been nearly eradicated.
However, some women want the right to vote and to have power in their society, and the only way to do that is to be able to vote.
This book hit hard when I read it back in…October (eek), as the Black Lives Matters movement had been going strong throughout the summer and many friends were protesting and participating and those on the streets were in danger of police brutality and white supremacist counteractions, and the election was hitting its high point of stress, particularly with the mass disenfranchisement of so many people of color, mainly Black and indigenous communities.
I did like that the book addressed the issues of inequality and lack of voice, and made it very clear that without equal standing in the law, the small will never be equal and will always be subject to abuse of power. Because power untested corrupts, and there are many who will use it for their advantage or to feel large.
Juniper thinks it must be that Susan Bee woman, a mummified Victorian type who wears an honest-to-Eve monocle and treats Juniper like a cleaning girl.
The ways the books sought to address the wrongs of the past—how the suffrage movement of the late 19th century and the early 20th century had sided with the white supremacy movement in order to gain ground among the bigoted voters, and how white women left Black women behind without a second glance.
There is the main gathering of official league of women’s voters or whatever that Juniper joins, but those women do a lot of chatting, a lot of pamphlet folding and letter writing, but not a whole lot of doing. Until Juniper arrives, freshly wanted for murder and filled with vim and vinegar.
Juniper ends up organizing a march filled with the disaffected women of the league, and they end up breaking away from the league entirely after the march goes poorly and runs into festering resistance. I did like the those who joined Juniper were the ones filled with adventure and righteous anger, the ones who had been saddled in the sidelines themselves, whether because they were trans or too young or too delicate or not right in the ways that mattered to polite society. And the ones who stayed had good intentions (but good intentions don’t mean anything), but were unwilling to take the next step and go hard or go home because they had a lot to lose in their individual positions and lifestyles, and they didn’t want to lose what little power they had in the off chance it might help someone else rise.
What my mother taught me is this: you hide the most important things in the plafes that matter least. Women’s clothes, children’s toys, songs…places a man would never look.
All in all, this was a book about destroying the patriarchy (I apologize for my garbled review), in all forms the patriarchy takes, and all the little ways women are kept down. From clothes without pockets to clothes that constrain movement and force a woman’s body into a shape pleasing to a man’s eye, to marriage and gender expectations to submissiveness.
And it was about uniting women—and realizing that womanhood is not a monolith, which I felt was addressed fairly well in this one through the sisters and who the sisters recruited to their cause.
Juniper, the youngest and the maid aspect of the triad of witches, recruited the young, the impassioned, those filled with spirit and eager for a fight. She went here and there, rallying those to her cries, and she tapped into the passionate (and the rich, coincidentally). These were women who wanted the vote so they could stand on their own feet and loudly proclaim themselves to the world.
Agnes Amaranth, the middle sister and the mother figure, was the one who had gathered up those weaker to her and tried to keep everyone safe under her umbrella of protection until the fight had been smashed out of her and it was only herself to protect. But with the return of magic and Juniper, she begins to unbend, and through her the plight of the factory workers and working class women is seen. Isolated, standoffish, keeping to herself, but test her and she will unite and rally and fight. These were the women who wanted the vote to an extent, but mostly wanted the chance to straighten their spines and be free of harsh labor conditions, poverty and the whims of cruel husbands.
Beatrice Belladonna was the eldest and the crone figure, representing wisdom and the gathering of knowledge. She didn’t unite so much as continued to stumble into the arms of Cleo, a Black journalist and something else. Beatrice represented the intelligensia (to an extent, as the librarians ultimately rejected her save for her boss, who represented those in the Underground Railroad) and a tentative alliance with the Black resistance. This area was a little less well done, mostly because Harrow had to tread really carefully to avoid the ~Magical N—~ trope, which…I’m not sure that she managed.
But the point with Beatrice was that knowledge resides in most places, and while one person couldn’t
keep all of the knowledge safe, collectively split amongst a large group (and among a group that knew to keep its mouth shut and its head down), the knowledge would be protected, if scattered.
However, the mild point was that not all women stand united for one singular thing. Equality and rights mean something different depending on what privileges you hold, which I felt was fairly well explored in this one.
The Constituion? What, exactly, do you think the Constitution is? A magic spell? A dragon, perhaps, that will swoop down to defend you in your most desperate hour?” Cleo straightens in her seat. Juniper doesn’t think she’d ever seen a face so full of scorn. “I assure you it has only ever been a piece of paper, and it has only ever applied to a very few persons.”
So I’ve rattled on and on about rights and different groups and loosely alluded to feminism (which is a word that has different meanings to different people and is not universal), but not really talked about the plot.
Is there a lot to say about the plot? It’s fairly straightforward, once you get past a lot of the over-written prose. Because as beautiful as much of the writing was, holy guacamole was it over-written, verging into violet territory on most of the page, which is why it took me forever to get through.
The pacing itself is very slow, made slower with the preponderance of words upon words upon description, as if Harrow delighted in new ways to describe a cobblestone or the ways branches twisted together or a special insight into the world’s workings.
Anywho, the plot—women used to have magic, the magic was ripped away from them but there was a secret tower that was supposed to hold the last women’s magic, and three sisters in New Salem found it and began a journey to smash the patriarchy and gain the vote.
There are parallels/allegories/whatever to the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, the history of the factories and tenements of the industrial revolution, the KKK, the rise of evangelicalism, and much more, all twisted into a world with vestiges of a past with women who ruled and ruled well. The hints of their former selves is tucked in all around—the worshipping of Eve, the many inventors/painters/prominent historical male figures turned female, the fact that St George hunted witches instead of dragons, and so much more.
However, the biggest thing you need to remember about this book is that librarians are awesome, but they are not infallible.
Is that a biased takeaway?
I received this ARC from NetGalley for an honest review.