Book TW: Violence against women and children including in-text murder.
I love a good story about witches and so when Sarah asked what book I wanted to review first, I immediately thought of the audiobook version of The Witches of New York by Ami McKay waiting for me in my Audible TBR pile.
The narration by Julia Whelan was excellent. She manages to create distinct voices for the many characters, mostly female, who inhabited this story. Unfortunately the best praise I can give about the book is that it made me want to go back to other books about witches that resonated with me, surprised me, or challenged me more. Beyond that, this novel didn’t do much for me.
The Witches of New York is a neat and tidy little story about three women: Beatrice Dunn, Eleanor St. Clair, and Adelaide Thom. They’re developing and strengthening their powers while facing your standard evil and intolerant religious zealots.
Beatrice is a wide-eyed and guileless 17-year-old living in a small village when she comes across an advertisement to work in Tea and Sympathy, a tea shop owned by Eleanor and Adelaide. Convinced it is her destiny, she leaves home with little more than a spare dress in her carpet bag to seek her fortune in the big city.
Eager beaver Beatrice is introduced to the particularities of the arcane by Eleanor, a healer trained by her French mother, and Adelaide, a seer who is in many ways still recovering from an attack that left her with only one eye and a network of scars on one side of her face. Together they seek to give comfort to the women and girls who alight upon the front step of their tea shop, which endures despite the occasional threats to their existence and their livelihood, including escalating acts of violence from a priest and church lady who are members of the local Catholic community.
The story is built on the supposed moralistic menace of unbound femininity and how it is suppressed and silenced through violence, apathy, internalized misogyny, and government action. Having established these ideas, though, it never moves beyond the well-worn paths of existing narratives on the subject and dances around the edges of more complicated possible stories of how women survived despite not fitting within society’s defined and constraining norms. We spend only a few moments at the women’s asylum, barely touching on the nonsense ways women ended up there (including allegedly practicing witchcraft). Eleanor’s sexual identity, because it is hidden from every other character except her former lover and her former lover’s abusive husband, is little more than window dressing. My kingdom for a story about queer Victorian witches! Instead our witches are pretty basic, reading tea leaves, providing abortifacients, speaking with ghosts, and being harassed by clergy whose motivation (witches are unholy! but also a little sexy?) is barely more complex than Frollo’s response to Esmeralda in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The author, as she discusses in her notes at the end, clearly sought to tie the experiences of these late 19th century (White) women with today’s feminist movement. It is easy to see the parallels in how women police other women, in the many and various ways violence against women is experienced and often dismissed, and in the small and large ways women rebel. But the story sometimes needlessly belabors the point, in one moment explicitly calling the tea shop an essential “safe space” for women needing the services of witches and suffragettes alike, making the not-very-subtext text and leaving very little space for the reader and their own interpretations.
What disappointed me the most was the lack of complexity of the characters. Beatrice is perfect. She’s cheerful, kind, beautiful, and beloved by everyone she meets. Minor inconveniences are initially thrown in her path like a cancelled train and a closed tea shop, but none can keep her from her ultimate witchy destiny. She faces no real challenges in the development of her powers, no setbacks, no insecurities, just poof!! immediate fast track to being the witchiest witch.
The worst that can be said of Adelaide and Eleanor is they were sometimes a little short with each other. Their back stories, while detailed, barely inform their actions in the story being told. Against them, the priest and church lady are both written as one-note, EVIL characters. The priest commits almost all of the violence against women on the page,
I would have loved if the story introduced some nuns stirring up trouble against the men of the church, or more witches that weren’t different flavors of paragons of loveliness.
The story so ardently tries to draw parallels across time by insisting in the universality of the experiences of women and feminist movements. But by focusing on the experiences of White women of the past, it erases women of color and their stories in both in the past and the present, while also flattening the major and minor characters inside the narrative. I’m not looking for a retconning of 1880s New York. I am well aware of what immigration patterns looked liked at the time and what racist immigration policies were in place (because, yes, much of there is much of the present that harkens back to the past). I would invite folks here to interrogate the pervasiveness of the foundational assumptions in stories like these, where what is being stated is “women” but what is meant is “White women” or where we talk about “men” but really mean “White men” (I have absolutely been in conversations about historical labor patterns post-Reconstruction in the South where the speaker kept saying “workers” for me to have eventually managed to drag out of them that they were only talking about White men, WHICH IS A FAR SMALLER CLASS OF WORKERS).
McKay, in her author’s notes, wonders at one point what would these witches of the past would think of today’s feminist movement. It’s tough to answer that question because there’s not a single woman of color in this story. There’s no conversation or acknowledgement of slavery or even a real discussion of what specifically the suffragettes were advocating for (and what they were not advocating for). The Witches of New York is a world where there simply are no people of color present besides the mystical presence seemingly guarding the book’s MacGuffin, an ancient Egyptian artifact. How could that for a second truly speak to today’s feminist movement? Or reflect the actual feminist movement at the time?
If you are interested in a story about White women who as witches face the dangers you see telegraphed chapters ahead and who get a HFN, then this book is not a terrible place to visit. But, if you are looking for a more nuanced world, where your standard European/American/Christian witch lore is combined with indigenous traditions or other non-Western cultures and religions, or to truly wrestle with feminist theory and practice, or just want to see a really cool rainbow jacket, then fret not, there are far more diverse and witchtastic worlds to explore.
For my part, I would recommend:
- the beautiful and lyrical love note to community in Shadow Shaper by Daniel Jose Older,
- a very specific story about a witch coming into her power that is grounded in Polish folktales in Uprooted by Naomi Novik,
- a TOTALLY AWESOME story about indigenous Mexican culture, the end of the world, the Catholic Church, and the endless fight between men and women about who has the right to work magic (and who is more powerful) by checking out Diablero on Netflix,
- or the bonkers and unapologetically didactic The Love Witch (available on Prime!).