Why You Need to Read: “The Once and Future Witches”

The Once and Future Witches

By: Alix E. Harrow

Published: October 13, 2020

Genre: Historical Fantasy, Folklore, Paranormal

            …“The Tale of Saint George and the Witches.” It’s never been one of her favorites, but she reads it anyway.

            It’s the usual version: once upon a time there were three wicked witches who loosed a terrible plague on the world. But brave Saint George of Hyll rose against them. He purged witching from the world, leaving nothing but ashes behind him. 

            Finally only the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone remained, the last and wickedest of witches. They fled to Avalon and hid in a tall tower, but in the end Saint George burned the Three and their tower with them, (3). 

            2020 was a memorable year in and of itself. This was unfortunate because events of the present—which, I won’t list in this review—did not allow us to celebrate any milestones. One in particular was the ratification of the 19thAmendment which extended the right to vote to women, which occurred on August 18, 1920. This was a huge event because the movement for women’s rights—known as the Suffrage Movement—launched on a national level with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. And yes, similar movements were occurring in other countries around the world. This is one example out of many which demonstrates how long women had to fight and to protest to have their voice heard within the government. Alix E. Harrow gives readers her historical interpretation of this movement—with elements of witchcraft—in her second novel, The Once and Future Witches

            There are 3 protagonists in this novel, the Eastwood sisters: Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth and James Juniper. Circumstances have brought the sisters together in New Salem in 1893 on the spring equinox. Agnes, Bella and Juniper have neither seen nor communicated with each other in 7 years. And yet, they still feel like the family they once were regardless of what led them to their current predicaments: Bella is a librarian, Agnes works at a mill, and Juniper has left home (and is a wanted woman). Societal norms and gender stereotypes have placed the sisters in situations where they cannot hope to progress further in life. That is unless they decide to join the local suffrage group, and to practice the magic they were taught from their grandmother, Mama Mags. As these sisters reconnect and reclaim what was denied to them their entire lives, they realize that more is at stake than just having the freedom to practice magic, to vote, and to be a woman. And, they won’t have to do it alone. Joining the Eastwood sisters are: Cleopatra Quinn, a journalist and a member of the Colored Suffrage Movement from New Cairo; August S. Lee, a factory worker from Chicago who has a knack for fighting for fair treatment for factory workers and for practicing “male” witchcraft; and, several members of the Sisters of Avalon, local women who are willingly to use magic in order to receive fair treatment. The antagonists include: Gideon Hill, the ambitious politician, who knows more about witchcraft than he should; and, his ward, Grace Wiggins, who is the head of the Women’s Christian Union—an organization of women who are “content” with the way things are, and are against all suffrage groups and witchcraft. All of these characters develop at they push for what they believe in, and they are more complex than they first appear. These characters deserve our sympathy and our empathy. 

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is the female characters who decide to go rogue and to form their own suffrage group which permits them to use witchcraft the patriarchy has denied them for centuries. It seems whenever suffrage groups get closer to achieving their right to vote, society finds a way to “punish” these women, which forces them to learn witchcraft so that they have a way to fight back. However, why is it that magic is stronger in females than in males? The second plot surrounds the legend of “The Last Three Witches of the West” and “The Lost Way of Avalon.” In this book, everyone is familiar with the story of Saint George of Hyll and his “victory” over the witches and the destruction of their stronghold. Yet, Bella, Agnes and Juniper are able to find evidence the witches and the Tower of Avalon did and could still exist. The sisters are able to locate the Tower’s entrance and discover what is inside. The sisters learn the origins of the Tower and its “demise” and the connection it has to the present. There are 2 subplots in this novel, and they embellish the plots and allow them to go at an appropriate rate. The first subplot focuses on how society was “operated” towards the end of the 19th century; labor laws weren’t formed yet, Jim Crow and segregation were practiced, and females of all ages were subjected to misogyny from most of the males in their lives: fathers, male relations (who were favored for inheritance), bosses, politicians, etc. Females had little to no say over their lives, and they could find themselves arrested and imprisoned for refusing to follow these laws—mothers lost custody of their children—because social norms believed males were “superior” to females. The second subplot follows how witchcraft was able to exist alongside those who shunned and tried to expunge it. The question is, why? Was it due to fear, or because women were better at witchcraft than men? Once everything has been revealed to the characters (and the readers), how will they react? 

            The narrative in this novel is very intriguing. The narration follows the points-of-view of Bella, Agnes and Juniper in 3rd person limited narrative, which presents what each protagonist is experiencing at the moment without the other ones knowing about it. However, there is a slight difference in this narration. Magic allows the Eastwood Sisters to feel one another’s emotions, which allows them to know what is happening to the others at any given moment. The sequence is interesting as well because as the narration is presented in the present in real-time, the story halts whenever a “story” is being told by one of the characters. While the concept of “a story within a story” is nothing new, the presentation of the stories by the characters offers readers the chance to delve into the narrative even more. The narrators are reliable because readers follow their streams-of-consciousness and their memories of the pleasant and the traumatic, which makes the narrative easy to follow. 

            The style Alix E. Harrow uses for The Once and Future Witches is a tribute to all elements of folklore familiar and unfamiliar to her readers. The title is an allusion to the novel, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, but has the setting and the mood of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, this novel is not only a retelling of folklore, but also a retelling of societal practices from over one hundred years ago. Labor and factory workers suffered long workdays with little pay, women had to follow the rules set by their fathers and their husbands and other laws otherwise they would be punished, and the blatant racism which saw segregation as a legal and an acceptable social practice. All of these are mentioned within the book as well as all of the advocates who pushed for equal rights and fair treatment such as: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This novel is full of allusions to tropes from folklore and familiar tales: Avalon; the number 3; shadows, Maiden, Mother and Crone; witches, Christianity, etc. Also, Alix E. Harrow includes some of her “fractured fairy tales” throughout the story. A fractured fairy tale are stories in which “a writer or storyteller rewrites and refines them for the world we now live in,” (Yolen). Elements and/or familiar parts of a known story—Cinderella attends a festival, Sleeping Beauty must fall asleep at some point, etc.—but everything else is altered so the variant is presented as a new one. The storyteller is able to have fun with these tales as they have more freedom to tell the story that reflect their atmosphere. The Once and Future Witches is a combination of historical fiction and numerous fractured fairy tales, which presents readers with a unique historical fantasy story. The mood in this novel is oppression. Several of the characters—including the protagonists—are subjected to oppression and are willing to do anything to fight against those who dominate them. The tone in this novel refers to the legacy of witchcraft and spells; if they are not supposed to be practiced, then how has the knowledge survived since the death of the last coven of witches? It could be argued that the tone pertains to who has access to witchcraft and what it entails, especially those in power. 

            The appeal for this novel have been highly positive. Based on other ratings and reviews, it appears readers enjoyed The Once and Future Witches as much as or even more than the author’s first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It needs to be mentioned that the 2 books—while they belong in the speculative fiction canon—are of different subgenres. The former is a historical fantasy about witches, which is categorized in the paranormal and the urban fantasy (and the witches) subgenres. The latter is a portal fantasy, which is a subgenre of fantasy. Readers need to understand these books are different, yet enjoyable. Fans of The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will enjoy this book the most.

            The Once and Future Witches is more than a story about witchcraft, it is a combination of various folklore and moments in history. Alix E. Harrow celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment by gifting her readers a harsh reminder of how society used to be, and how we take certain rights for granted. If anything else, then you should read this story for the (fractured) fairy tales. 

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5). 

                                                      Works Cited

Yolen, Jane. How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. E-Book, Tachyon Publications, 2018. 

Why You Need to Read: These Essential Reads for Black History Month

Black History Month can be a repetitive; this is because we honor the accomplishments of black people in the United States, and the rest of the world. And yet, we tend to recognize the same people: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman, and we glance at Alex Haley, Madam CJ Walker, and Matthew Henson. I have nothing against honoring the same people every year, but we should honor the “hidden gems” as well. A few of those figures are still alive. 

            At most, schools assign students to read Frederick’s Douglass’ biography and Maya Angelou’s memoir, and memorize the speeches by both Sojourner Truth and Dr. King. The Civil Rights Movement is glanced over to the point where many people do not know what influenced Rosa Parks’ actions and why. Now, I’m not saying that U.S. Citizens should know every black person in history, but they should attempt to broaden their historical knowledge. Who else can we learn about? How can it be done?

            The books mentioned below are biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of a few obscure figures that influenced many lives in the United States and in the rest of the world. Some you may have heard of, some you have not, and one “controversial” selection (with good reason). These are recommendations, which I have read, or started reading. A few of these selections are denser than others, but that means that there is more to read and more to know.

Older Releases

            These selections include a couple of familiar names, a narrative from a runaway slave, a figure from the Reconstruction Era, and a white man in black face on a mission to expose the harsh reality of Black Americans right up to the Civil Rights Movement. These books will give you insight into how Black Americans were treated from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) as told to Alex Haley

            Everyone has heard of this book and its biopic adaptation by Spike Lee, but how many of you have taken the time to read it? Malcolm X’s autobiography not only looks into the treatment and the struggles of poor African-Americans—and he does a great job distinguishing the various ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses of African-Americans throughout the U.S.—but also, points out how easy it is to corrupt religion. Yes, Malcolm X became a Muslim, but his journey of knowledge through self-education is one that can inspire everyone who reads his life story.

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986) by David J. Garrow

            This Pulitzer Prize winning biography is the most informative and in-depth look at Dr. King’s life and participation in the Civil Rights Movement from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. This biography of Dr. King stands out because it includes Dr. King’s personal papers, FBI documents, and interviews with Dr. King’s (then) surviving associates giving readers one of the most comprehensive looks into Dr. King’s career as an activist. 

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs

            Many of us have heard of Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup. Harriet Jacobs’ memoir—which was published in serials—tells us what slavery is like for females. Her slave master not only sexually harass Harriet to the point where she had to go into hiding, but also those experiences left Harriet feeling paranoid and insecure even after she escaped to the Free States. 

From Superman to Man (1917) by J.A. Rogers

            Written and published over a hundred years ago by this Jamaican-American writer, Rogers’ method of discussing race relations, prejudice, and misconceptions of history in America versus the rest of the world will have readers recalling the essays written by James Baldwin. Only, Rogers’ books were published before Baldwin’s. This book is written as a conversation between an educated black man named Dixon, and a few white males he ends up traveling with. This book contains information on how all races and all ethnicities of all socioeconomic statues are victims of misconceptions and falsehoods spread by political leaders and propaganda in order to keep “everyone in their place” and to “justify their beliefs” on how they think the world should operate. The historical and the revelations will leave readers with knowledge of what is made ubiquitous and what is limited to everyone. 

Black Like Me (1960) by John Howard Griffin

            The first time I heard of this book was on an episode of Boy Meets World. A journalist decided he was going to go undercover and document what is was like to be an African-American male in the Southern United States during the 1950s. What this Caucasian male witnessed and experienced made him both a best-selling author, and a target to those who opposed the Civil Rights Movement and integration. This book was a wakeup call into how segregationist and racists were able to get away with their violent actions for as long as they did. 

Recent Releases

            These selections were published in recent years—as early as 2008—and they’re all about the struggles of Blacks throughout the world and how, with all of the programs and the public awareness, the struggle remains. We are reminded by these authors that in this list that all is not well. 

March Trilogy (2013-6) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

            Congressman John Lewis has lived an interesting and inspirational life. Growing up in the Southern U.S. right before the Civil Rights Movement, readers learn what inspired John Lewis to participate in this movement. John Lewis was one of the speakers at the March on Washington, and he knew Dr. King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and other figures from that era. The graphic novel format allows for the appropriate depictions of pivotal events from this moment in U.S. history. 

Between the World and Me (2015) by Ta-Nehisi Coates

            The author wrote this book for his son in response to the verdict of the Trayvon Martin murder trial. The book echoes James Baldwin’s works in that it serves as an informative tale of what modern Black Americans—particularly males—need to be aware of in American society. While racism is acknowledged and visible due to modern technology and coverage, it remains a “blinded” issue because the book illustrates how the accusations and the deaths of many Black people continue to occur in America. 

Men We Reaped: A Memoir (2013) by Jesmyn Ward

            This memoir focuses on how the repetitive struggles of a group of people because of race and socioeconomic status continue to lead to despair within the “upcoming” generation. Jesmyn Ward—2-time winner of the National Book Award—recalls how the deaths of five young black men, including her brother and her cousin, in four years from various causes, which sprouted from limited opportunities and expectations. This book is a cautionary tale as to why believing that times have progressed can lead to crushed hopes for a “good” life due to a lack of education, government spending, history, family expectations, and health. The focus here is how such limitations can lead to an early death instead of incarceration, which is just as bad. This book is a wake-up call to the harsh reality of those who are left behind deliberately. 

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (2012) by Tom Reiss

            What inspired Alexandre Dumas to write The Three Musketeersand The Count of Monte Cristo? Well, if your father was a general in Napoleon’s army, who was later betrayed and murdered by him, then those stories and experiences would find their way into your stories. This Pulitzer winner looks at the life of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas who went from a bastard growing up in (what is now known as) Haiti to his rise and eventual fall in the French army. 

Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching (2008) by Paula Giddings

            Ida B. Wells-Garnett was a fierce woman who was ahead of her time. While she is remembered during Black History Month, her accomplishments have been forgotten. Born into slavery, Ida B. Wells started her anti-lynching campaign after losing a friend to a lynch mob. In addition, she was one of the first to sue and to win a lawsuit after being thrown off a train for refusing to move her seat way before Rosa Parks did the same thing! And, she was a speaker of the Suffrage Movement in the U.S. and in Britain, and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.). Ida B. Wells remains one of the most infamous badasses in American history.

These books are recommendations for Black History Month in how the repetitive struggles of Black Americans continue to affect and to influence the growing demands for change in the United States. Even if the names of the authors are familiar to you, then you should still read the books due to the other names mentioned within these books. These are non-fiction reads, meaning that the people and the history are true whether or not you want to believe it. I believe reading these books will provide a better understanding of how and why people continue to mistreat each other. False knowledge and beliefs can often lead to denial once the truth and the facts are presented, but knowing that there is truth within history will allow the race of humanity to continue moving forward.