“One witch you can laugh at. Three you can burn. But what do you do with a hundred?” (469)
After a fun vampire read and a delicious deal with devil, I wanted to round out October with a witch story. Alix Harrow’s highly anticipated The Once and Future Witches with its witches and suffragettes was an easy choice. While the suffrage movement waged for decades, Harrow’s novel is set primarily in 1893. And while the right to vote serves as a backdrop, plot device, and often a foil, the heart of the story remains with the witches that once were and will be again.
Admittedly, I was initially rather disappointed in the novel. Descriptions and phrasings that were brilliant bursts of light dulled and became mundane when repeated again and again, regurgitated in the same and similar fashions. While some of the repetition was undoubtedly intentional mirroring between the three sisters, it was too frequently utilized to have the intended effect. Any disappointment I’d initially felt, however, vanished by the final third of the novel.
Alternating between the three Eastwood sisters, James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna, the novel details how witching returned and the power of women was realized. Harrow weaves in some traditional European folklore and nursery rhymes that most readers would be familiar with. (Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Humpty Dumpty, Ring around the Rosie, and Sleeping Beauty are just some examples.) Hidden in the words of bedtime stories and children’s songs were the witching ways; and what are the witching ways but the will, the way, and the words.
The three sisters are the maiden, the mother, and the crone necessary for the spell to succeed in bringing back magic, but they are also the will, the way, and the words, and that’s the power that hums steadily beneath the pages. Early on in the novel, when they’re trying to build their numbers, they request those women who have joined the Sisters to write down the stories and the magic they know. Some of the women, those from other backgrounds and cultures, refuse. Juniper, in particular, is very upset, but one of the women patiently explains “not every word and way belongs to you.” Harrow’s treatment of racial and class disparities in the right to vote movement (and witch movement) is worth noting and applauding, as is the love story between Cleo and Bella. (Jennie, however, seems an afterthought. While I appreciate the character, that storyline needed more flesh on its bones or to be removed.)
In time, the women stand together, joining their voices and their wands to create a brilliant ball of light and drive away the shadows. The message is clear – we must stand together. Sure, this is a fantasy novel with witches and familiars, but we are the daughters and the granddaughters of women who were indeed burned. We are the phoenix. And that is not fantasy.
I wept at the close of this novel. I wept for the Eastwood sisters, but my tears were mostly for the women who are like the sisters’s mother – the women who think if they make themselves small enough and quiet enough, he won’t hurt them anymore. The women who have lost their way and their will. The women who have forgotten the words.
Once upon a time…