Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: WATER WITCHES by Chris Bohjalian

Today's forgotten book, scarcely mentioned even on the author's Wikipedia page, is Chris Bohjalian's Water Witches.  It is by far my favorite by Bohjalian who later became an Oprah pick and achieved fame for other novels, some of which I could not finish.  I kept hunting for one that fulfilled the promise of this one, but we seem to have gone separate ways--as writers and their readers sometimes do.

Water Witches is one of those charming witchcraft novels that are often dismissed as chick lit, novels such as Chocolat by Joanne Harris and Practical Witchcraft by Alice Hoffman, so if you don't like those, you might not like this one either.

I read it as a literary novel too, a meditation on gender politics, drawing connections to universal political forces, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the eternal masculine and the eternal feminine.  Water here is a symbol of life and spirit, and the sun is a symbol of the masculine and material.

Knowing this won't spoil the book for you, but it might enhance your reading experience.  His first epigraph quotes Numbers 20:11, about Moses drawing water from the rock.  The second epigraph is Ernest Hemingway's own epigraph from The Snows of Kilimanjaro, which was from a newspaper story:  Close to the summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard.  No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

Cats in different forms can be symbols of the wild in us--our material, animal selves, a universal in our classic literature.  This novel takes place in Vermont, with its seldom seen catamounts.  They stand as a symbol throughout the novel.

The author's opening lines:  "Some people say that my wife's sister is a witch.  My father, for one.  My brother, for another.  And while I will not dispute their use of the term when they are merely alluding to her somewhat contrary nature, I do take issue with them when they use the word to malign what she believes is her calling."

His sister-in-law, Patience Avery, is a professional dowser, gifted in the art of divining water in the ground, so that the best location of a well might be ascertained.  The rest of the females in the family, including his wife, Laura, are also somewhat gifted that way, some of them even reputedly psychic.

"Laura and Patience come from a family of women.  Or, as my brother says, a coven.  As far as we know, there are no other fathers, sons, uncles, brothers, or male pets with the Avery name.  At least in this area.  The Avery clan today is a clan wholly of women...'

"Laura and Patience's father, at least in photographs a lion of a man, lasted the longest of any male who has come in contact with the group in recent memory (except for me)."

The male narrator's dealings with the family are a constant source of comedy and witty banter, but the plot involves the political machinations of businessmen to draw water from the river in order to make snow for the ski resorts, this in a time of drought.

The first paragraph of the second chapter finds the male narrator, a lawyer, blinded by the sun on the courthouse steps.  The material/males are identified by lions and the sun, the spiritual/females by the moon.  It is not so blatant that you have to even notice this, most readers don't, but the symbolism is there just as surely as it is in the Neil Diamond song.  You know the tune, play me.

Some of the reviewers of this book at Amazon see the conflict in the story as Republicans vs. Democrats, but I see it as more deeply symbolic, and I like it that way.

Either way, any old way, this is a warmly witty and humanist book that is also an intelligent literary feat.  A deserving choice for October's full moon week on Forgotten Book Friday. 

No comments:

Post a Comment