The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow – a powerful and vivid tale of protesting women and witchcraft

The Once and Future Witches by Alex E. Harrow

It is 1893 in New Salem, and this is a feminist fantasy about women who are compelled to use spells to be visible. There are women campaigning for the vote, there is unfair treatment of women throughout the city, but most dangerously there is a determination to stamp out any woman who may be a witch. This is partly history; Old Salem was the site of a great purge of witches which involved the burning of  a community. Into a town of oppressed, ignored and frightened women arrives James Juniper Eastwood, a young woman escaping from her past into a dangerous future. She is, the author asserts, the youngest sister. This is a vivid book of fantasy on the edge of reality, as people, virtually all women, have small spells to help life run more smoothly. In a demonstration of female solidarity over the generations these spells have been handed on from mother to daughter, grandmother to granddaughter, and between women silently. The governing forces of the city stamp out any sign of witchcraft, the majority of the men want women to stay precisely where they are, and the danger of being identified as a witch is overwhelming. Juniper is not alone for long as her sisters soon appear in remarkable circumstances.  

This is a powerful book which has much to say about how women have been ignored, become invisible, and had to make tough choices in order to survive. It uses the imagery of rhymes, stories and legends to recall uncanny abilities and unusual powers, spells and incantations, sought and discovered, half remembered in order to rescue desperate situations. It speaks of sisterhood and friendship, alliances and gatherings that may help, but may also expose those involved to terrible danger. It mentions oppressed people of various kinds, a society dominated by fear. Anchored to real history by glimpses of the suffrage movement and some of the tensions between women it provoked. The characters, the determined women who join the group, friends and allies, even significant enemies are brought to life in this intense narrative. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.  

As Juniper arrives in the city the author lets us know that she is hunted for a serious crime. The scene changes to Agnes, an older sister who left the family farm years before, and now scratches a living working at the local mill, a dangerous and degrading job. She has just discovered that she is pregnant, and this has thrown her into a state of indecision, remembering her sister and the secrets passed on by her grandmother Mama Mags. Bella is the oldest sister, having been in the city for years,working as a librarian. She has been noting stories, rhymes and ideas that would explain the nature of witchcraft, as she is keen to find an explanation for the hatred that is felt for women with secrets.

As the three sisters are drawn together again they begin to discover the truths of their home background, the way their father treated them, the importance of their grandmother’s words and actions. This book is an incredible piece of writing, with enough realism to be credible and enough fantasy to encourage imagination. The themes of oppressed and silent women is a strong one, while the past and threatened punishments for using spells are terrifying. This is a disturbing book which deals with how women can find strength together, and how their voices have been silenced for generations. There are hints of domestic violence and hard decisions based on desperation. The links between the sisters are unusual, the threats that tie them together are almost physical, the pain that has divided them may well bring  them back. This book is a sometimes brutal, always colourful, memorable novel with some tremendous characters, and I recommend it as a powerful read.   

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