A fitting book to read this dystopian and perilous autumn of 2010, The Witch of Hebron has the required elements of Halloween, harvest, and societal collapse. In many ways this book is reminiscent of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, set in the dystopian world of The Road. Unlike some books that often start out strong and then don’t deliver, The Witch of Hebron starts out slowly, but by the middle of the book you are immersed in a richly imagined “world made by hand,” eagerly devouring every page. And the ending delivers.
The Witch of Hebron is Kunstler’s second novel in his World Made by Hand series, named for the first book. Kunstler, best known as the author of bestselling nonfiction works such as The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, and The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, has woven his nightmares into a vision of America after a complete economic, political, and cultural collapse. By writing this series of novels, Kunstler seems to be trying to get his message of post-collapse possibilities out to a different audience: those who prefer fiction to nonfiction.
How do you live a worthwhile life when everything goes to hell? What kind of practical issues will come up? What does community mean? How do you make a living? What does it mean to be human in such a world? This is the underlying vision, the raison d’etre, for Kunstler’s series.
Those familiar with Kunstler’s nonfiction will recognize the premise. The disastrous tipping point seems to have been a combination of peak-oil, a subsequent economic spiral downward, a failed series of wars in the Mideast, and, the coup de grace, a terrible act of terrorism in Washington, D.C.
The central character, Jasper, is three years old when America was still functioning for the most part. By the time he reaches age 11, the country has apparently become a failed state. This interval of 8 years indicates a fast crash of our system, probably since everything in our society depends on cheap oil. Once that stopped flowing, everything else quickly followed.
The Witch of Hebron is set in the Hudson River valley of post-collapse upstate New York, in small towns like Union Grove, Glens Falls, and Hebron—all filled with rotting strip malls and skeletonized Wal-Marts. Indeed, these small towns seem much more like medieval villages in which inhabitants rarely stray more than five or ten miles from home, so that the wilderness is again threatening and serves as a barrier. Long distance travel is gone and the rest of America is an unknown. We see the gradual fragmenting of the nation so that the further away you go, the less is known about what is going on.
The Witch of Hebron takes up where World Made by Hand left off, but you can also read this as standalone book, because it recaps the vital points of the first book. Whereas the first novel was more didactic in its setup of a broken America, this second novel has a more mythic feel to it, and the author has settled in more with his characters.
We meet again several of the Union Grove characters introduced in World Made by Hand: Robert Earle (a former software executive and now town mayor and carpenter) and his partner Britney; Loren Holder (minister and constable) and his wife Jane Ann; and Stephen Bullock and his wife Sophie (the richest man in the area—his spread has the only electricity). There are relationship stresses and dissatisfactions in the ruins of their lives, things that just don’t work the way they should.
The members of the New Faith sect, the fundamentalist church group which has set up shop in the abandoned high school, are back too: Brother Jobe (a very religious man with a spooky talent for death), the Precious Mother Mary Beth Ivanhoe (an invalid seer known as the Queen Bee), and two legendary veterans of the wars in the Mideast: Brother Seth and Brother Elam. There are other colorful characters too, including Perry Talisker (a tormented hermit and frontiersman), Madame Amber and her bawdy house in Glens Falls (which definitely has a McMurtry feel to it), and three new pivotal characters: Jasper Copeland, Billy Bones, and Barbara Maglie.
The protagonist is the eleven-year-old Jasper Copeland. Jasper is an unusual boy, going through an informal apprenticeship as a physician by assisting his father, Dr. Jerry Copeland. He has run away from home after committing a heinous act: killing a horse that stomped his dog to death.
Billy Bones is a late adolescent who has decided to create his own legend as a bandit, making up songs about his nefarious deeds in between horrific acts of murder and rape. He has decided Jasper is to be his sidekick—because every famous bandit needs a sidekick.
Billy and Jasper thus become a dysfunctional duo on the lam, reminiscent of a reverse, deadly version of Huckleberry Finn and Jim. Only in this case, Huck is a under the thumb of a blond sociopathic Jim. The novel is at its best when it follows the exploits of Billy and Jasper.
The novel’s eponym is Barbara Maglie, a solitary and mature woman of mystery and beauty, a self-described “witch” who heals the innermost secrets of men through herbs and her innate gifts. Barbara is a sorceress who restores one’s masculinity in a sumptuous and comfortable home complete with offerings of great food. The passage in chapter 17 that describes her kitchen and the meal she prepares reads almost like a dream situation any person would fantasize about. Some might criticize her as a man’s fantasy, and indeed she is that, yet she is also symbolic of a possible future, of warmth and comfort and order in this world made by hand.
Kunstler’s first book was criticized by some for its lack of racial diversity and female character development. His handling of female characters is still pretty much a return to traditional women’s roles. The two strongest female characters are like two sides of the same Goddess coin, complete with archetypal nicknames. One, the unhappy, neurotic, dangerous seer, the Queen Bee. The other the maternal healing witch, a man’s ultimate dream of ideal mother-lover-homemaker, the Witch of Hebron. But the reality is, of course, that even in the old traditional roles, in pioneer life, women were as tough, enduring, and edgy as their men—and sometimes even more so.
Because of this traditional role-assignment, Kunstler has been accused of being misogynistic by readers of his first novel, but he is not. He’s just more than a tad anthropocentric, as many old guys are. Although he certainly seems to play up his persona as a curmudgeon, when an author likes people it is obvious, and Kunstler likes people well enough—even if they disappoint him. He is sympathetic to his characters, even the bad guys, most of whom do have some good points.
The Witch of Hebron is not as savage and dark, or as emotionally-draining as The Road, but horrible events do occur and are not glossed over. Sex and violence are dealt with in a straightforward manner: neither glossed over nor dwelt upon. The future is an ugly world in many ways, and the book has sexual assaults, beheadings, human trafficking, and a rather display of justice reminiscent of the Dark Ages. If you want a hard-edged dystopian tale with more realistic racial and feminist elements, and an author who plumbs the depths of the human soul, look elsewhere.
Yet The Witch of Hebron should be very satisfying for folks looking for a read that puts you in small-town America, in which the past has become the future—like a futuristic folktale. Characters have that “everyman” lack of definition and simplicity that lends itself more to myth than modern, emotional, hyperdetail. The setting is after all, the storied Hudson River Valley, the location of Washington Irving’s classic The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It also shares has some kinship with the stories of childhood and magic spun by Ray Bradbury.
Kunstler could certainly have made this a thicker book, and thus had the space to mine more from the events, characters, and the themes of death and justice. But as it is, The Witch of Hebron is a fast-moving and enjoyable read for the warm days and chilly nights of autumn, when you are staying in a rural B&B reading by candlelight, or watching the leaves change on a red and yellow river bluff, drinking a thermos of hot apple cider.
P.S. Learn something practical. Blacksmithing, carpentry, gardening, shoemaking, even a bit of magic. While you still have a chance.