By Jane SmileyJune 8, 2011
Witches on the Road Tonight by Sheri Holman
SHERI HOLMAN HAS an imagination that is both capacious and meticulous, and by turns somber and antic. It is a strange combination, rather like the flavor of, well, maybe burdock leaves. She has written about the 15th century (in A Stolen Tongue), the 19th century (in The Dress Lodger), about plagues, prostitution, holy relics, dissection, still births, and dairy cows. Her new novel,Witches on the Road Tonight, set in our own day, seems slightly less ambitious and slightly more fanciful than her three previous ones, but that is just one of its illusions.
Holman takes up the tale of two main characters: Eddie Alley, a retired TV host who once introduced late-night monster movies as "Captain Casket," and who as the novel opens has laid himself to rest in his old stage coffin (his lover, Charles, is away, which gives Eddie the opportunity to do himself in at last, and for good reason — he is suffering from a terminal illness). Eddie's daughter Wallis is a high-powered news anchor, a former foreign correspondent, who specializes in reporting on disaster. Her relationship to Eddie is affectionate but vexed, and the mechanisms of this vexation are the materials of Holman's retrospective narrative.
Witches really cannot help but be alluring, and the witch in this case is Eddie's mother, Cora. In 1940, Cora and Eddie are living in an Appalachian byway known as Panther Gap. Two representatives from the Works Progress Administration, Tucker, a writer, and Sonia, a photographer, are passing through the nearby village, charged with coming up with a guide to the area. Eddie, only 8, is hit by Tucker's car, and Tucker decides to drive him home and make sure he is all right. Cora, an herbalist, is out hunting for ginseng (both magical and valuable) when they arrive. Tucker and Sonia make themselves at home. When Cora returns, she is understandably suspicious, though in the end welcoming enough.
But there is something about Cora that Tucker cannot understand, or resist. It may be that she is drugging him, or perhaps she is actually riding him like a broom through the night sky.
Seventy years later, Wallis has her own bêtes noir, and one of them is her father. Her fund of memories includes Panther Gap — in 1980, when Wallis is (or was; all the stories unfold simultaneously) 12, Eddie and his wife Ann have a falling out over a teenaged boy that Eddie has insisted on rescuing from homelessness, and Eddie flees into the mountains, taking Wallis and Jasper with him. Wallis is hyper-alert for clues to her father's affections and preferences. The stranger is more prized than she is, she feels, but she doesn't understand why, and maybe Eddie doesn't quite understand, either.
One of the pleasures of Witches on the Road Tonight is Holman's copious knowledge of American popular cultures as they shade into American folk culture. The source of Cora's power, whatever that power is, is her knowledge of her environment and also of the commercial worth of ginseng, valuable for its magical powers. Cora's power seems local and mythic — there is no sense that she could or would operate outside of her immediate world. Or perhaps she has no power — when Eddie's father comes home on leave from the Civilian Conservation Corps, he and Cora have an apparently violent confrontation in their bedroom that Tucker overhears. Eddie's "power," once he escapes Panther Gap, is a shadow — young fans of Hollywood Monster movies love his camp antics. But his show is a local one, and when the station is sold, Captain Casket loses his power. Wallis, the foreign-correspondent-turned-anchorwoman seems to have made the leap to real stardom, but she and Eddie know the reality — not much separates Tucker, Cora, Eddie, and Wallis.
Holman's detailed grasp of the terms of Cora's sorcery gives Witches on the Road Tonight a literary seriousness that is missing from, say, the Twilight series. Holman takes witches seriously, which means that Tucker's experience of Cora is truly scalp-prickling and interesting. She is not exploiting the current rage for vampires, witches, and werewolves — Cora's magic is homegrown and rooted in the soil. Holman's characters have bona fide issues of identity and legitimate sources of pain that magic exacerbates rather than erases. The originality here lies in the author's ability to reshuffle the materials of pop literature and contemplate them anew, which is not a novelty for Sheri Holman — she has shown since the beginning of her career a restless adventurousness that is the mark of a born novelist, the sort of novelist who can't help writing even if the novel is dying or literary culture is evolving or apps are replacing human brains. Witches on the Road Tonight is a path into her work that beckons, with strange lights and mysterious apparitions.
Jane Smiley is the author, most recently, of Private Life and A Good Horse.
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