(Psst, these are my Connecticut and Rhode Island picks for my Make America Read Again challenge – to read the full list of books this year, click here.)
The heat wave FINALLY broke here in Atlanta (as the handmaids would say, “Praise be”) and I’m embracing my favorite season of the year with ALL THE THINGS. We’ve got baby pumpkins on our coffee table, butternut squash soup is on repeat for our weekly meal plans, and I’m planning a Nora Ephron movie marathon this weekend and a day of leaf-chasing in the mountains.
…But of course, let’s not forget the best part of this season: FALL BOOKS.
October is especially near and dear to me as it is the season of tricks (and treats, because I totally didn’t make it all the way through Whole30…but can you seriously blame me when all the best candy is out in full force right now?!?). I absolutely LOVE mystery books and thrillers. Though I have a bit too much of an active imagination to read true “horror” novels — I avoid books with crazy amounts of gore, especially this month as my husband has had to travel for work for most of October and Lord knows I can’t sleep with all my house lights on for the entire month — I DO enjoy a good page turner or who-dun-it novel. I even wrote my senior thesis on gender issues in the novel Dracula.
I also REALLY love a good book about witches. A couple of weeks ago, I realized I actually had several “witchy” reads on my Make America Read Again list, as well as some mysteries and thrillers. And they all happened to be set in New England, so it’s a perfect time for me to read books set here as this is the time of year when I truly miss my days as a Boston girl. To get us in the holiday spirit, I’ll be having a couple of posts about these books – first up, lets talk about all that hocus pocus.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond – Connecticut
The book most of y’all were forced to read in late elementary or early middle school. Somehow, I missed this one despite my voracious reading habits, and I’ve always felt a little left out. So this week, when the cold front settled in Atlanta and I was finally able to switch our air conditioner OFF for the first time in seven months, I curled up on my couch and swallowed this book whole in one sitting.
And y’all, seriously – I know this is a kid’s book and all, but it really does hold up to the test of time.
Who those of you who are like me and somehow missed this book – the story takes place in colonial Connecticut and not Salem, Massachusetts, like I had originally thought. The story centers around teenage Kit Tyler, who was raised in opulence and relaxation by her grandfather in Barbados. When he passes, she sets sail to Connecticut to live with her Puritan aunt and uncle, and naturally everything changes for her.
Kit quickly realizes that her open and free lifestyle is at odds with the strict rules and regulations of her aunts’ home. This is the time of witch trials, of harsh punishments for petty crimes, of long solemn Sabbath services and endlessly dark New England winters. Though she grows to enjoy her time with her cousins, Kit often finds herself in trouble – her habit of swimming is found suspicious by her neighbors as that is a trick only “witches” can supposedly do. She is outspoken and brash, though she is also extremely empathetic to those she cares for, similar to Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables (which may be why I enjoyed this story so much).
When Kit befriends the lonely Quaker woman known as “the witch of Blackbird Pond,” the rumors grow and eventually, Kit is accused of witchcraft. Throw in a couple of love triangles between her cousins and the various young men in town and you’ve got yourself a historical intrigue.
Like I said, this book caters to young readers, so it certainly isn’t a life-changing book, but I quickly devoured this story. It’s well told and has a decent amount of depth to it, and for middle readers it’s a great introduction to character development. The gentle moralizing messages are substantial enough to help young readers begin to be less self-absorbed without being too over the top or patronizing. Plus it’s a nice Halloween-themed read that won’t keep me wide-eyed at night when I’m home alone!
The Witches of Eastwick – Rhode Island
Gonna be totally honest – this book was completely different from what I expected. I have never read any John Updike before, and since I’m in a REAL confessional mood right now, I’ll admit that I had gotten him mixed up with another author with a similar name but completely different style, John IRVING ( of “A Prayer for Owen Meany” fame). Turns out Updike focuses on “small-town Protestant life” and enjoys wrestling with issues of religion, societal obligation, marital infidelity, and sensuality.
…So Halloween book this is not.
The Witches of Eastwick is set in, you guessed it, Eastwick, Rhode Island, in the 1960’s. I absolutely loved the opening pages of this book as it described a sterotypical Rhode Island day – the sights, scents, and accents of this seaside state. Three women – and literal witches, as Updike immediately tells you – named Sukie, Alexandra, and Jane all acquired their supernatural powers after they left (or were left by) their respective husbands. They often gather together; however, their routine is disrupted by the arrival of a new man, Daryl (a thinly-veiled symbol for the Devil, because duh). Each woman is seduced in turn by this mysterious new man, and then subsequently snubbed. The toil and trouble arrives as the witch coven decide to take revenge on their shared ex-lover.
This book has been lauded as both a feminist triumph and a sexist, misogynistic disaster. I’m honestly not too sure yet which way I fall on this book (I actually have about 40 pages left, so maybe my mind will settle in the last few pages). I’ve enjoyed the mythological elements in the story and the idea of turning patriarchal societies down on its head and have women running the show, as these witches appear to do – yet I’m unsure how pro-woman a book is when the main female characters are, quite frankly, a bit evil. Also, the comparison of female sexuality as witchcraft dances dangerously close to that dated (but still present) sexist view that women who like sex are sluts, but men’s natural instincts are to sleep around so it’s ok for them. There were times when I had to refrain from rolling my eyes or clench my jaw and wonder if our current president would enjoy this story, if he ever actually took the time to read an entire book.
All this being said, the book is certainly easy and entertaining to read, and I feel sophisticated now that I’ve (mostly) read an Updike novel. Just know going into it that you’re not getting a typical “witch” mystery, and will spend a lot of the novel wrestling with whether you find it to be feminist or sexist.
Also, there’s a movie version starring Susan Sarandon, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jack Nicholson as Satan (again, because DUH) if you’d rather get the Cliff’s Notes version ;).
Other Witch-Themed Stories
If you can’t get enough of black cats and broomsticks, other excellent witch reads include Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman (fairly different story from the movie version), The Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston (part romance part fantasy), The Witches of New York by Ami McKay (the Gilded Age and witchcraft? Sure I’ll take it), and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (academic alchemy).