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To realize how deeply entrenched “proper” female indoctrination is yet today, read a book that lies outside those boundaries and feel the constraints of what you expect taut against what is presented. THE ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES, crafted by Alix Harrow, echoes the many horrific injustices women have endured through the ages simply for being born female. We have been instructed time and again that we are meant to be subordinate. Some men have bound our supposed place to religion, naming servitude as our due. However, Harrow’s novel isn’t a recounting of history. It’s a fantasy in which women who are aware they’ve lost the ability to perform magic that was designed to protect them—to give them what they need—want it back. Actually, they didn’t lose anything. It was taken away. They want to reclaim and enhance the power of being witches.
The fact that the three main characters—three sisters—were badly mistreated by their father isn’t unfamiliar. Even today only the very sheltered haven’t met a woman who qualifies. The sisters leading readers into this tale have been nearly shattered by their father’s cruelty, yet their trials lend them commonality and grit. Memories from their grandmother who taught them “women’s ways” that were nearly forgotten draw them together once again.
If I’ve made this novel sound like a feminist Harry Potter, it’s not. It’s not sweet or traditional or humorous. The edge of the conflicts is sharp and painfully reminiscent of recent events worldwide when women and other minorities have been openly mocked and objectified. The charismatic amoral villain has a devoted following who delight in seeing “evil” punished (evil being independence)—in spite of the fact that the acts of the witches are generally humanitarian, embracing diversity of race, sexual orientation, and lifestyle. Even pandemic disease is used by the villain to manipulate the masses.
Independent women are scary and can be a threat to hearth and home. This message of the undeservedly pious has been repeated ad nauseum since Eve. Harrow’s witches aren’t all European, female, or good. They’re individuals with common needs that range from the mundane to the life-threatening. In the time period of the novel (beginning in 1893), women don’t have the vote yet, but many are cognizant of the changes society will face once they establish and magnify their voices. The vote is one of the tools they seek in order to build satisfactory lives. Many realize that as they rise from powerlessness, they must stand together or be burned separately.
One of the premises of the novel is that magic words are camouflaged in pretty stories and children’s tales to preserve them from destruction. What if that were true? What if women could actually act against injustices and bad treatment on their own, forcing those who would brush them aside as less than human to give them respect? Many are certainly trying. As repulsive as some women I know would find the witches in the novel, I can’t help but wonder how different human society might be if egomaniacal men around the globe had not managed to subdue their female counterparts over and over again, if women had not failed to support one another, or if tribal prejudice hadn’t been used to hold people apart and thwart their struggle toward love and a better life. Tolerance is still a dirty word in many circles, but what if it weren’t? What if honest election officials were revered for preserving the unity of the many instead of castigated for not following the desires of the few? What if we truly did do onto others as we would have them do unto us? Tis the season to ask those questions.