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Book Review: The Once and Future Witches (but this is not really a book review)

"she thinks of the ways people make for themselves when there are none, the impossible things they render possible."

Once upon a time there were four sisters.

TOnce and future witcheshis is not a book review, not really. I mean—it is about a book, The Once and Future Witches by Alix Harrow, which is the story of three sisters, Beatrice, Agnes, and James Eastwood. It is a mix of fairy tale and witch tale and historical fiction. Set on the eastern seaboard—a fantastical Massachusetts near the end of the 19th century as women fight for their voting rights—the plot combines the suffragette movement with witchcraft. I could write about the writing, about the skill with which the story is told, about how I loved being immersed in this world and so I read it slowly, picking it up and putting it down so as to stretch out the time I had with the sisters in the story.

I loved the book. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in history, women’s power, or just a damn fine story, well-told.

But I also had to put it down often because it was rubbing on some of my sore spots.

Once upon a time there were four sisters.

That was my identity growing up: one of the four Allman sisters. As long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to books about sisters. It was one of the reasons I loved Little Women so much: four sisters taking care of each other. However. I don’t think I could put it into words then, but now I can see more clearly that while we were four sisters, growing up in the same house, we weren’t united like the March sisters. We fought a lot, both with each other and for our mom’s approval, and when I think about myself as a child, I see myself alone. People near me, but not truly connected. In the same house but neither truly seeing my sisters nor being seen by them.

Once upon a time, there were four sisters, but not really.

It is hard to tell the stories of our fracturing. Because even if they couldn’t see me and I couldn’t see them, we still made bonds. They were based on memories from childhood, and then on being mothers ourselves, and on the shared histories of family parties. Conflict grew uglier, because of stories that aren’t mine to tell, and for a long time while we still had the four of us, there were really only three of us sisters making connections.

Once upon a time there were three sisters and a shadow fourth.

The three of us seemed close. We travelled together. We asked for advice. We spent time with each other. We tried to take care of our mother when she got sick, to varying levels of her approval. When she died, we took care of her possessions.

But life had other stories to tell us. We had to learn, as Juniper and Amaranth and Belladonna do, that the damage which tears the most is the sort done to you by someone you love and trust. June tells a fairytale story about their story, "In stories, things come in threes: riddles and chances, wrongs and wishes." She then lists the three points, the turns in the story that changed everything. If I told you them I would spoil the book for you, so I won't, but it doesn't matter because I think she gets it wrong. The real start of the story, and the one that they go back to over and over, is the first damage, the first breaking, the first time they betrayed each other. That the betrayal happened because of their abusive father's actions matters, of course. But really—in the novel, in life—there are two points, not three: the way they break each other, the way they repair each other.

Right now my sister relationship is broken. As before, the story bent because ugly words were strewn and secrets were spoken, because of the way one damage sparks more and more destruction. Because there is no spell that can undo any of it. 

So reading the stories of Belladonna, Amaranth, and Juniper (these are their “mother names,” middle names that are somewhat secret) kind of broke my heart a little. Because they were fractured too, their relationship made complicated by the actions of abusive men. They had to learn to trust each other again. They had to learn that sometimes the decision one sister makes feels like betrayal to another, while it was really that the sister needed to save herself because this time no one else could. They had to learn all over again how to talk, what to accept, not to judge.

As the story progresses they learn these things. Partly they learn them through magic, which their grandmother bound them with. Partly they learn by seeing what happens when they are together. Partly through having one common enemy. Partly by discovering their individual wounds grew smaller in the largess of their connectedness.

I don’t have a magical binding from my grandmother. I don’t know how to make new connections. I don’t know how to fix things—actually, what I know is that it isn’t my problem to fix. My issue is learning to deal with having fewer connections than I used to. So when the Eastwood sisters figured things out between them and started repairing their relationship, I teared up. When Bella writes that magic will continue because it will be passed from mother to daughter, from sister to sister, from aunt to niece, I put the book down. When you are a sister you are also an aunt, and I am learning how small my role really is in my nieces’ lives, and consequentially in their daughters’. I might have magic to pass but it doesn’t matter if no one is there to receive it. And I can still pass it to my own daughter, but the web of Sisters and Daughters that is built in the book tore me. I thought I had that but I don’t.

Once upon a time there were…

I don’t know how to name this place that we are at right now. Once upon a time I can be with one sister, and then at a different once upon a time I can be with the other sister, but never the three shall meet. Never the four. I cannot blame anyone as I love them all and I understand the hurting on all sides.

Once upon a time there was a...

“Never” is maybe too long of a word, and perhaps like the Eastwood sisters the story will turn again, toward healing. But I’m not sure what kind of sacrifice would have to be burned at that pyre.

Once upon a time there was a middle-aged woman who couldn’t fix her sisters.

Once upon a time there was a woman who loved her sisters.

Once upon a time there was a woman who had to rely on broken magic, and eventually, after many days of journeying, she began to learn that broken magic is all anyone has.

Once upon a time a woman learned she had to heal herself.



I'm sorry your sister relationship is broken, I have seen this in my own family and wish it could be fixed. I also love this book! Elle xx


I find books that trigger all kinds of feelings in me too and make me cry. I am sorry about The broken relationship with your sisters. Sending love.


I am also so sorry for your broken sisterhood. I see the hope and love in your words.

Kristin Johnson

This is my life now too. Once there were four sisters and now there... isn’t. I’m making my peace with it. The fracture isn’t mine to repair. Your writing on this tender topic was eloquent, raw, and spot on. You put words to my thoughts. Thank you...and....I’m sorry you are experiencing this too.

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