The year is 1893, and witches have been driven out of Salem. There are few women left with the ways, words, or will to cast a spell. The city of New Salem has sprung up as a beacon of modernity and morality. So it comes as a shock to the townspeople when the three sisters from a backwater town summon an ancient, mythical tower into existence in the town square.
This event signals the beginning of an epic mission to recover the old magic lost to women in the Salem witch trials. The Eastwood sisters – James Juniper, Beatrice Belladonna, and Agnes Amaranth – join forces with local suffragists and the fight for witches’ rights and women’s rights become entwined. Old spells are re-discovered and secretly distributed among the women of New Salem, and the sisters plan elaborate, disruptive demonstrations to bring attention to their cause. Obviously, the patriarchal powers that be are unsettled by this open rebellion, and what follows is a thrilling battle for control of the ‘City Without Sin.’
I loved this book. It’s a beautifully-written homage to rebellious women packaged within a rich, folky world. Rebellion against marginalisation is the central cause of the women in this novel. The concept of combining the women’s suffrage movement and witchcraft was what attracted me to pick up this book in the first place. The collaboration between the movements adds a sharp feminist dimension to the traditional folk tales referenced throughout the novel, though the suffragists’ demands fade into the background fairly early on as the revival of witchcraft picks up momentum. This seemed to be less to do with any decisions the characters made, and more for the convenience and clarity of the plot, which was a shame.
The three main characters of the Eastwood sisters are fully-drawn, interesting characters who inject vitality and emotion into the political aspect of the book. James Juniper is fierce and brave, but dangerously impulsive. Agnes Amaranth is stoic and persuasive, but guarded. Beatrice Belladonna is intelligent, but desperately meek. Each chapter follows a different sister and each sister undergoes a personal transformation as she learns more about herself, her siblings, and the nature of witchcraft. I think most people who read this book will be able to identify with one of the sisters, or with the myriad of well-developed secondary characters who appear throughout the book.
Many of those who join the Eastwoods’ cause are poor, women of colour, or members of the LGBTQ+ community. To these women, witchcraft is a pathway to reclaiming the power and dignity denied to them by society, and even a simple cleaning spell is made radical by its association with subverting authority. Magic is described by the sisters as ‘the space between what a woman has and what she wants’ – a refreshing shift away from the trope of magic being inherited through blood or status.
From an intersectional feminist perspective, the story deftly handles the problematic lack of representation within the women’s suffrage movement and 19th-century historical fiction. The experience of women of colour and their exclusion from the predominantly white space of the women’s suffrage movements is explored through Cleo Quinn and her community. Queer women are prominent within the story, although they conceal their gender or sexuality very carefully from other characters. Harrow explores the individual challenges these women face in a way that never feels overly didactic, and the result is a refreshing and modern update to the fantasy genre.
The plot was absolutely gripping. The stakes for the characters were continually raised as their well-laid plans went sideways, and aside from a few conveniently discovered spells there are no easy get-outs or convenient escapes in this book. Patterns are an important aspect of the book, and are carefully hidden throughout the story. The pattern-making sets up a few very satisfying twists that some readers (not me) might be able to see coming.
Each chapter begins with a spell in the form of a nursery rhyme, many of which will be recognisable to most readers. Occasionally a character will tell a story – usually a modified version of a classic fairy tale – which builds the mythology of the world and teaches the reader about the history of witchcraft in this world. I wish that Harrow had included more of these rewritten fairy tales in the story. There is a deliberate and clever reason why nursery rhymes and fairy tales are the vehicles for history and knowledge in this world, and I think adding more would have only enhanced the richness of the world.
I was completely taken by the Eastwood sisters, and couldn’t pick a favourite between them if I tried. The story is fast-paced, original, and an absolute blast to read. If you like stories about rebellious women with a folky twist, The Once and Future Witches is definitely for you.