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Review: The Witch of Hebron by James Kunstler

The Witch of Hebron: A World Made by Hand Novel
By James Howard Kunstler
336 pp., hardcover. Atlantic Monthly Press – Sept. 2010. $24.00.

James Howard Kunstler has long been among the most talented, impassioned and engaging commentators on humankind's ecological crisis. But when he first proposed to incorporate his message into a work of fiction, neither his agent nor his publisher was thrilled. They perceived that he was known mostly as a nonfiction writer—his main claim to fame being The Long Emergency, a stark warning to the industrialized world that a reckoning lies in wait for its plundering ways—and they thought it best that he continue in this vein. As Kunstler later recalled, “I tell them I want to write a novel, they say, ‘Oh, no, please don't. Write The Long Emergency Two.’”*

Kunstler didn’t listen. And now, two novels later and to the great benefit of the environmental community as well as the reading public at large, he has officially won the battle of wills with his publisher, Grove/Atlantic. His first post-apocalyptic novel, World Made by Hand, was a memorable, deeply touching, nuanced and richly imagined tale that became a bestseller shortly after its release in March 2008. It garnered excitement and praise from the likes of NPR, the New Yorker and Oprah Winfrey's O Magazine, among others. And Grove/Atlantic has now apparently decided to seize the day by allowing Kunstler to parlay this first book into a series. That’s how we’ve come into The Witch of Hebron, a fine sequel to World Made by Hand.

Both novels take place in an unspecified near future in which the cheap, abundant oil that makes modern life possible is no longer available. Amenities like automobiles, hospitals, electrical appliances and cuisines from around the world simply aren’t a part of people’s lives anymore. Famine and disease have easily halved the population, and for those who remain, farming, religion, barter and trade take center stage. Horses are a necessity for traveling long distances, but few people can afford one in these lean times.

The Witch of Hebron picks up a couple of months after World Made by Hand ended. Returning to the small upstate New York town of Union Grove, the new book further defines the post-apocalyptic setting, adds depth to characters who played only minor parts in the first story, ties up loose ends from the previous book and introduces some all new dilemmas. And it does all of this against the backdrop of a full-moon Halloween, lending a delicious sense of foreboding to the proceedings.

The novel’s unlikely hero is a remarkable 11-year-old boy named Jasper Copeland. The son of Union Grove’s only doctor, Jasper has been studying under his father for years, and he’s anxious to strike out on his own despite his parents’ insistence that he finish school first. (In these new times, youth seem to learn their future livelihoods at an early age and often follow the same trades as their parents or other family members.) As it happens, the story quickly provides Jasper with an opportunity for a trial run at a doctoring career. Distraught over events surrounding the loss of a beloved pet, he runs away from home hoping to get a fresh start in a town where no one knows him, and where he can find a local doctor willing to take him on as an apprentice.

He never succeeds in this plan, but he proves his abilities in a far more poignant way. During his time on the run, he treats a man’s festering boils and saves another man’s life by removing his inflamed appendix. The appendectomy scene, incidentally, is a masterful set-piece, an elaborate, well-researched and totally convincing depiction of surgery in an era of low-tech medicine. In this procedure, lighting comes from candlelight reflected in a small mirror, and brandy serves as an antiseptic while opium acts as anesthesia.

Along the way, Jasper has the misfortune of falling in with a young man named Billy Bones. A thief and a crazed killer, Billy only gets Jasper deeper into trouble by making him an accomplice (his so-called protégé) in a torrid killing spree. Jasper's horrible worldly experiences with Billy, together with his doctoring feats and an entirely different type of initiation at a place called Madam Amber’s Fancy House—a shrewdly run home-based business of sorts that's no place for a child, to put it mildly—reinforce a central theme of this book. It’s that the laws and norms that have traditionally guided the course of one’s life no longer have any real hold or relevance. A boy’s parents may insist that he finish school rather than taking up medicine right away, but their words don’t have the weight of the law behind them. And there’s no real “law” to see to it that Jasper is found and returned home, that Madam Amber is punished for letting him be defiled or that Jasper obtains certification for practicing medicine. Indeed, it’s even far from clear whether any of the murders will be investigated or prosecuted.

Among the more controversial aspects of the first book was its inclusion of magic and the paranormal. A number of the book’s central characters (members of a mysterious fellowship called the New Faith Brotherhood Church of Jesus) seemed to possess extrasensory abilities such as telepathy, psychokinesis and precognition. Kunstler has since explained that he intended these paranormal elements to “get across the idea that the consensus of reality based on the mental infrastructure of the Enlightenment was withering away.”** But many Kunstler fans were disappointed by these otherworldly touches, believing that they ran the risk of casting doubt on the book’s morals for the real world.

I personally felt that they were just what that first book needed. I love the idea of a world once again thought to be so vast and unexplored that it could contain untold wonders, be they latent gifts of the mind or faraway lands in the physical world (imagine an actual undersea Atlantis, or an island where prehensile beasts roam in wait for another Beowulf). Thus, I’m glad to see the supernatural dimensions of World Made by Hand further explored here.

And The Witch of Hebron really does have a witch, by the way. She’s just not the clichéd, broomstick-toting grotesque with which we’re all familiar from costume shops and The Wizard of Oz. Her witch nature is far subtler than that. As near as we can tell, she’s more or less an ordinary woman with extraordinary abilities that she prefers to keep private, unless she happens to find herself in the right company.

Almost all of the original main characters are back in this book. And, where relevant, the narrative recaps major events in their lives from the previous book, so that readers new to the series will still be able to follow the drama. The New Faith followers, who were a source of awe and mystery in the first book, are just as fascinating again here, using their extrasensory perception to divine details of Jasper’s journey and his whereabouts. Some other memorable characters continued from before include the eminently likable Robert Earle, a corporate executive-turned-carpenter who was our first-person narrator last time; the brilliant, entrepreneurial Stephen Bullock, whose vast property is rigged with electricity and other almost-unheard-of luxuries of yore; and Robert’s best friend and the local congregational minister, Loren Holder, who is suffering a crisis of faith because of all that he's seen and been through in these harsh new times.

The Witch of Hebron is the kind of part two that leaves you clamoring for a three. Nor would the series have to stop there—Kunstler’s post-oil world is so rich that it could easily sustain several robust sequels. And I for one will be first in line for every one of them.

* The quote is from: Kunstler, "Futurist.com Glen Hiemstra w/ James Howard Kunstler, Author: Part 1," interview with Glen Hiemstra, Futurist.com, Aug. 6, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYW-Wh5n2m0 (accessed Aug. 22, 2010). See also: Alan David Doane, “Completely at Ease: An Interview with James Howard Kunstler,” ADDwriteblog, Aug. 6, 2007, http://addwriteblog.blogspot.com (accessed Aug. 22, 2010).
** Kunstler, personal communication with the author, May 14, 2008.

Editorial Notes: Frank Kaminski is a member of Seattle Peak Oil Awareness (SPOA), a connoisseur of post-oil novels and a regular book reviewer for Energy Bulletin. He can be reached at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com.

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