This was one of those cases of the cover truly attracting me while in my local indie bookshop. I hadn’t read anything by Alix E. Harrow previously, but the title, description, and cover sold me on The Once and Future Witches. And, given the climate of hostility towards women and people of marginalized genders in the United States in 2022, this book set in 1893 feels oddly, uncomfortably familiar.
Taking place from the spring equinox to summer solstice, roughly, of 1893, The Once and Future Witches is set in a slightly alternative version of the United States. Salem, Massachusetts was razed by a witch-hunter who is now regarded as a hero. Near its ruins rose New Salem, and for a couple of centuries, women have kept their magic minimal, hidden, for fear of persecution and death. Against this backdrop, the three Eastwood sisters find themselves unexpectedly reunited (and recriminations will abound, don’t you fret) in New Salem on the equinox, where they witness a vision of a tower that could, if located, help them bring witchery back into the world. So they form a radical organization, even more radical than the suffragists that attract Juniper Eastwood to the city, a sisterhood that will stop at nothing short of liberating women from the patriarchy’s fear of witchcraft. Or, you know, they might themselves be jailed and executed. Such is the danger of revolution.
I’m getting the sense, looking at Harrow’s other published novels that have now swiftly been added to my to-read list, that Harrow is very interested in telling stories about storytelling, and I am here for it. Chapters of this book occasionally end with a story—always a fairy tale, always familiar yet somewhat different from how you might have heard it. Harrow tries to draw from a variety of folklore, not strictly European. She emphasizes that women’s magic is from every culture and does her best to confront the whiteness and racism that was present in the suffragist and other women’s liberation movements of the late nineteenth century.
Indeed, this book is also queer. One of the main characters, Beatrice Belladonna, is lesbian. I was pleasantly surprised when at one point one of the minor characters is revealed to be a trans woman (with some clever foreshadowing prior) so that Harrow can make the point that women’s magic is not gender essentialist. (There is also men’s magic, and it’s implied that the division between these two disciplines is itself arbitrary rather than fixed, but I won’t get into that too much for fear of spoilers.)
The way that the Sisters of Avalon prove to be more radical than the suffragists and align themselves with a labour movement also speaks to my unionist heart. I really like how Harrow uses this book as a platform for emphasizing that we are not free until all of us are free, that the struggle for liberation must be an intersectional one. This is probably most apparent in the interactions between Beatrice and Cleo. I love how, in presenting us with the Daughters of Tituba, Harrow reminds us that even as white women have viewed themselves as saviours of Black people, Black women have done a fine job of liberating and protecting themselves.
And that’s really why I loved this book so much. It mixes my love for story with my passionate beliefs regarding freedom and liberation. And it stokes those beliefs, reassures me. This book does not end where I expected it to. In fact, the initial mystery gets solved early on—only for it to be a brief calm before the larger storm as there is an intense backlash against the emergent witches of New Salem. I really enjoyed how Harrow handled this pacing and plotting, presenting us with a larger conflict and a reminder that progress is neither linear nor inevitable.
Perhaps the most obvious weakness to this book, in my opinion, is the villain. First, his identity is rather easily guessed long before it is revealed. Second, he is almost a caricature of the evils of patriarchy. Although I appreciate the way Harrow ultimately paints him as a frightened little boy, I think that embodying the antagonist in a single figurehead like this does a disservice to the fact that patriarchy is a structural issue. Even if this one person is vanquished, there is still so much work to do before women can approach equality or witches are accepted. To be fair, the book acknowledges that in its coda. Nevertheless, I just felt like the machinations of the villain and the confrontations the sisters have with him are the least interesting and fulfilling parts of this book.
In contrast, I loved the complicated relationships among the Eastwood sisters. As the book begins, they are estranged. Each one blames the other (or others) for letting her go, betraying her in some way. There is a lot of distrust and hard feelings. Harrow captures the damage that betrayal—real or perceived—can wreak on the relationship among sisters, as well as the long road one must walk to repair it. As with the social progress depicted in this book, the progress of repairing these relationships is far from linear. Yet in both cases, Harrow’s message remains one of an abiding, persistent hope.
The Once and Future Witches is a novel set in the past yet speaking to our future of possibility. Women are, to quote amanda lovelace, “some kind of magic,” and all of us have power even when society does its best to make us feel like we do not. But we have to come together to wield that power in solidarity. We have to believe we can make a difference, collectively, rather than shrinking ourselves so that we can merely survive within the system that seeks to harm us. This is something I truly believe, and in this novel, I encountered a sublime telling of that story in a way that inspires, empowers, and awes.