When Is the Time for Witching?
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
“...witchcraft isn’t one thing but many things, all the ways and words women have found to wreak their wills on the world.”
- The Once and Future Witches, Alix E. Harrow
Halloween is past and the season for witching may seem to be over, but there are a few new novels on the shelves of the Camden Public Library that tell the tales of witches, yet speak to much more than merely spells and fantasy. With politics, love, and sisterhood running as deep undercurrents in Alice Hoffman's Magic Lessons and Alix E. Harrow's The Once and Future Witches, readers will find stories that resonate in all seasons. Witchcraft becomes the modus operandi for interrogating the power attitudes and infrastructure that have disenfranchised women for centuries.
Alice Hoffman's Magic Lessons, published in October, is the prequel to the series she began with Practical Magic in 1995, that has followed the Owens family women back and forth through the generations. Here is the origin story of Maria Owens (matriarch of the line from which we meet the descendents in Practical Magic), who was abandoned as a baby but then brought up in the ways of witchcraft. As the novel follows Maria from England to Massachusetts and into motherhood, Hoffman probes the injustices done to women in the 1600s while also crafting a narrative of the devastatingly unequaled love of a mother for her child in a world that strips mothers, daughters, and sisters alike of power. Amidst violence and darkness, Maria holds to the truth that she has inherited from her adoptive mother and will transmit to the coming generations: the ultimate enchantment—love—is all that truly persists.
Magic Lessons is characteristic Hoffman: magic is borne in on the wings of a world imbued with ethereal descriptions and the spellbinding elements of the natural world. Here and in her standalone novels, Hoffman has always dealt with the relationships between mothers, daughters, and sisters, and the strength of these (often tempestuous) bonds is the lasting legacy when the covers close.
Alix E. Harrow's second novel, The Once and Future Witches, takes us forward to the late 19th century, where the Salem witch trials may be over, but the persecution of women continues to be a reality. With prose that ranges from frank and humorous to fable-like, Harrow begins, "There's no such thing as witches, but there used to be..." The novel's narrative shifts between the fantastically different Eastwood sisters, Juniper, Bella, and Agnes, as they engage with the women's suffrage movement and try to resurrect witchcraft under the guise of the Sisters of Avalon. Fiery Juniper notes that suffrage and spells essentially serve the same role, both as a kind of power denied to women. Witchcraft thus becomes a cloak for women's agency, their ability to be more than just "beloved or burned." With a November mayoral election threatening the lives of the witches and the rights of women further, the novel inevitably calls to mind our current political climate. The absolute futility and degradation the women often feel is unmistably reflective of the current experiences of many Americans.
Clocking in at over 500 pages, Harrow's tome packs quite a bit in, tackling rape, race, and homosexuality, in addition to the larger focus on women's rights and sisterhood. At times it may feel that Harrow tries to address too much, but her directness and moments of levity spare the story from feeling like a moral issues-laden novel. Alternating between the language of folktales and short, straightforward lines, Harrow makes the book feel both grounded and able to take off in majestic flight. And lest it seem like Harrow is spitting rage at masculinity in written form, there are truly good men in the novel, too, just as there are in each of Hoffman's.
Why is that Hoffman has managed to keep readers hooked to her Practical Magic books and that each year sees the publication of new stories of both historical and contemporary witching? Why do readers return to Salem, get entranced by fires at the stake, entangle themselves in atmospheric prose, and relate to these women who are all at once fierce, wounded, and passionately loving? Perhaps it's the timeliness of the authors' narrative explorations that draw us in—the discussion, both underlying and overt, of what it means to fight for voice and power. Perhaps it's that even though the authors couldn't have known that their books would be published in the wake of women's rights advocate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death, they nevertheless speak to her legacy. But perhaps it's also simply the allure of magic when we could use some escape... the magic of spells and the magic of language.
If you're interested in exploring more titles related to the world of witchcraft, try some of the following books, all of which can be requested through Minerva.
A Bewitching Booklist
The Witch's Daughter, Paula Brackston
An enthralling tale of modern witch Bess Hawksmith, a fiercely independent woman desperate to escape her cursed history who must confront the evil which has haunted her for centuries. - From the publisher
The Witch of Willow Hall, Hester Fox
Fox’s spins a satisfying debut yarn that includes witchcraft, tragedy, and love, set in 1821 New England. - From Publishers Weekly
The Familiars, Stacey Halls
Pregnant for the fourth time after three unsuccessful pregnancies, noblewoman Fleetwood Shuttleworth finds her life intricately bound to a midwife who vows to see her deliver a healthy baby when they are both drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the area. - From NoveList
The Mercies, Kiran Millwood Hargrave
After a storm has killed off all the island's men, two women in a 1600s Norwegian coastal village struggle to survive against both natural forces and the men who have been sent to rid the community of alleged witchcraft. - From GoodReads
A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness
The first in the wildly popular All Souls series...
Diana Bishop is a history scholar—and a witch in denial of her powers. Researching the early beginnings of scientific study in Oxford's Bodleian Library, she unwittingly discovers an ancient tome of alchemy and finds herself attracting a great deal of unwanted attention from a startling array of deamons, witches, and other supernatural beings. - From Publishers Weekly
The Year of the Witching, Alexis Henderson
Observing a life of strict submission to minimize discrimination for her mixed heritage, Immanuelle discovers dark truths about her community’s church and her late mother’s secret relationship with the spirits of four witches. - From NoveList
Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman
Where it all began...
The story of two sisters, Gillian and Sally Owens, brought up by their elderly guardian aunts in a small New England town. The aunts possess magic that they in turn hand down to their nieces. - From GoodReads
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Katherine Howe
Forced to set aside her Ph.D. research in order to help the settling of her late grandmother's abandoned home, Connie Goodwin discovers a hidden key among her grandmother's possessions that is linked to a darker chapter in Salem witch trial history. - From NoveList
A Secret History of Witches, Louisa Morgan
This historical novel... is extremely ambitious in its time line, covering the lives of five generations of women. From Brittany to Cornwall and much of Great Britain, and from the mid-1800s to World War II, this tale revolves around the Orchiéres women who have a magical secret that they protect at any cost and who pass down their knowledge and experience from mother to daughter. - From Library Journal