Turner Publishing, 2018
Over the last few years the notion of the witch has had a comeback experiencing less a revision and more of a rectification. We can see this in the numerous alcoves online where women (and more than a few men) practice a blend of witchcraft meant to enliven and empower the everyday. Unlike the top down authority structure of nearly every major religion with their implicit patriarchal contempt, witchcraft offers an individual yet communal bottom-up religious experience. And while decidedly feminine, it leaves definition open to and in control of its practitioners.
Fiction hasn’t quite caught up with the reality and practice of witchcraft. We still get more stories and depictions grounded in white cishet fears rather than honest representations. This is not to say there aren’t some wonderful witch books out there. For readers of high fantasy (Susan Dennard’s The Witchlands series for example) to those with more literary tastes to Millennials looking for practical, ritual guides (as in Lisa-Marie Basile’s upcoming Light Magic for Dark Times), playing with the idea of the witch is at once a reclaiming of history (both personal and cultural), an exercise in self-care, a psychological exploration, and meaningful play.
Simply put, there needs to be more quality books about witches in our lives. Enter Kathleen Kaufman’s Hag, a superb novel of heritage and struggle that just happens to be a brilliant witch story. Gone is ham-fist spookiness replaced by evocative setting and authentically earned emotion.
Kaufman’s story follows the Cailleach, a Gaelic deity, and her descendants from pre-history to the modern day. Intersperse in the coming of age tale of Alice Grace, a Scottish girl emigrating from Edinburgh to Colorado Springs and growing up in the middle 20th century, is the deep history of her mothers going back to the Cailleach herself. This history reveals an intuitive kind of magic meant to heal and help but is all too often persecuted due to baseless fear and an urge for power no matter how trivial or localized. It can’t be stressed enough how deftly Kaufman has put together a matriarchal lineage story that in no way feels tired or labored, but instead vibrant and moving.
The central theme of Hag is not so much the discovery of one’s path but the decision to follow a path and how that process, that decision, is participating in a ritual existing throughout all time if not outside it. Readers best experience this through Alice Grace, who is aware of her abilities embracing them but at the same time hesitant about revealing them to others. Perhaps one of the strongest depictions of this comes early in the novel when as a young school teacher, Alice Grace becomes overwhelmed with grief and rage at the death of President John F. Kennedy. However, her students parrot the hateful conservative politics of their parents taking glee in the announcement of the president’s murder:
“‘Shut up!’ Alice’s voice was clear and strong. ‘You have to live with this! You have to live your whole life with what you’ve done!’ She paused; the stunned faces of the once-cheering students were slack with surprise. Alice didn’t yell; in fact, her principle had talked with her on multiple occasions about being stricter, more assertive. But now she had found her voice, and the words poured out in an angry tumble. ‘Your whole life, when someone ask where you were when President Kennedy was shot, you get to tell them you cheered! You cheered like the little monsters you are! You live with that your entire life! You can’t take it back; you can’t undo it. Live with that'”
A similar rage erupts in all the Cailleach’s daughters at various times for various reasons as they inevitably come up against a humanity with no sense of time or their place in it. In the case of Alice Grace, she can see the life path of every person she meets. It exists as “an invisible wall” preventing them from knowing their fate. In this moment, Alice Grace decides they don’t deserve such ignorance:
“Alice brought her hands up and held the invisible curtain that saved the children from their fates for a long minute. The class sat mesmerized, their cheers silenced, their smiles erased. Then, before she could think too much on the matter, she brought her hands sweeping to the floor, and with it the layer of protection that had separated them from their paths was erased.”
It is a glorious and terrifying moment for everyone–children, Alice Grace, and readers–told in such a direct manner as to be chilling. Kaufman builds gracefully to scenes such as this throughout the novel. They occupy a place of vivid theatricality and inspired act. Each time she is able to not only tie the event to the past of her narrative but to the future of it as well brilliantly weaving together the story. We see not just the Cailleach or Alice Grace but all the daughters/mothers fight back against “the futility of knowing” as well as the entrenched sexism imbuing even the most mundane acts (we all tend to forget that it’s only been in the 30 or 40 years that single women have been able to have their own bank accounts or rent/own property without a male signatory). Yet Hag isn’t a novel of rage, rather it is oddly tender and all too real even if it is dealing with myth. Here, again, is the great strength of what Kaufman has written–she has successfully grounded us in both fantastic and realistic characters, places, and times making the tale told resonant.
Kaufman’s prose is elegant and light allowing her story to come to the fore with ease leaving readers feeling light but yet resonant with the pages’ meaning. A masterly blend of mythology and modernity, Hag is a supremely satisfying novel.
About the Author
Kathleen Kaufman is a native Coloradan and long-time resident of Los Angeles, California. She is a University of Southern California alum, teaches high school English, and is a writing and composition adjunct professor at Santa Monica College. In addition to writing, Kathleen is an avid amateur photographer and has published work in The Huffington Post and other publications. When not writing, she probably has a camera in hand or is curled up with a good horror novel. Kathleen currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, terrier, and a pack of cats.