Witches on the Road Tonight

It is 1940, and in rural Virginia a group of children play a game while eight-year-old Eddie Alley watches. "Witches" on one side, "Travelers" on the other, they chant:

 

How many miles from here to Gal-il-ee?

Three score and ten.

Can I get there by candle light?

Yes, if your legs are long as light.

Watch out!

Mighty bad witches on the road tonight.

 

When asked if he wants to play, Eddie hesitates, then sighs and asks "Which side am I on?"

 

This question is at the heart of Sheri Holman's Witches on the Road Tonight. It begins with two travelers, writer Tucker Hayes and photographer Sonia Blakeman, who accidentally hit Eddie with their car. They take the boy to his isolated shack near Panther Gap, and in order to distract him Tucker produces a hand-cranked projector and shows a film, an early, silent version of Frankenstein. It's the first movie Eddie has seen, and it fires something within him. The arrival of Eddie's mother Cora, popularly supposed to be a witch, fires something within Tucker, and a stay which was to last only a few hours stretches into days. The recently drafted Tucker is reluctant to leave, particularly after his night-time trysts with Cora. Are they dreams? Or is she really a witch, and is Tucker under her spell?

 

In the course of a novel that spans seventy years and alternating viewpoints, we learn that Eddie eventually leaves Virginia, marries Ann—whose father owns an independent TV station—and becomes Captain Casket, host of a cheesy, yet fondly remembered, late night movie show specializing in horror films. Ann, longing for a more cosmopolitan life, tolerates the show and her husband's alter ego. Eddie's daughter Wallis is torn between an admiration for Captain Casket and the realization that her father is only too human.

 

Their charged but apparently stable triangle is transformed by the arrival of Jasper, an orphaned teenager who turns up at the station one day and begins doing odd jobs, idolizes Eddie, and is outraged when he learns that the show is being cancelled and the station sold. He also exposes the divisions, secrets, and jealousies within the family, which come to a head after Eddie flees the surprise party his wife has meticulously planned. He takes Wallis and Jasper to his old home, long since abandoned after the death of Cora. It is here that twelve-year-old Wallis, wise beyond her years, comes to know her dead grandmother for the first time. Wearing Cora's faded clothing, poring over her old book of herbal concoctions, she wonders what happened to Tucker Hayes, who apparently never left Panther Gap. Did Cora kill him, or did he stay there in hiding to avoid the draft? Does Eddie know? Does her father see in Jasper a son, a friend, his younger self, or a potential lover? Is the house at Panther Gap a prison, or a refuge? And is Wallis a traveler, a witch, or both?

 

These are not the only questions swirling beneath the surface of Holman's clear and thoughtful prose, which also deals with guilt, love, and the possibility of redemption. It's a heavy load for a slim novel, and few of the questions are answered. Instead there are hints and clues, allowing readers to decide for themselves what really happened in Panther Gap in 1940, and whether the witches and ghosts are real or imagined. "People are your ruin or salvation," Cora tells Eddie. What she doesn't say, but which Holman suggests again and again, is that sometimes they can be both.

 

In The Dress Lodger, set in early nineteenth-century England, Holman demonstrated that she could capture the sights, sounds, and voices of a very different world. Despite the occasional stumble (Eddie, nominally the main character, remains something of a cipher), Witches on the Road Tonight is a similarly rich and rewarding read, elegant and assured.

Comments
by sivle1940 on ‎03-11-2011 07:46 AM

When is the upgrade to the current software for NOOKCOLOR going to be released?

by Bruce on ‎03-11-2011 09:48 AM

  After thoroughly enjoying the world Holman weaved in The Dress Lodger, I am anxious to see how she applies her vividly descriptive skills in her newest work.  I can still call to mind the palpable sense of foreboding permeating the 19th century London of Lodger (it was as if the setting itself was one of the novel's characters, nefarious and destitute) .  In the new book, I expect that Holman will deftly explore the witchcraft metaphor in laying bare the typically complex layers of her characters, leaving the reader with a page-turning sense of suspenseful unease.  It will be interesting to see how she paints a modern backdrop within which her creations play out their destinies -- given her style it makes sense that she anchors the more contemporary characters to a dark & mysterious past and a rural environment that imposes itself upon those who seek to find answers there.

April 24: "[The HST] lifted a curtain from our view of the universe, changing it so profoundly that no human can look at the stars in the same way..."

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