Monday, November 08, 2010

James Howard Kunstler's The Witch of Hebron: A Review

James Howard Kunstler revisits Union Grove and Washington County in upstate New York in The Witch of Hebron, his sequel to a World Made by Hand. Set in an America of the future, after Washington, D.C., has been destroyed in a terrorist nuclear explosion because of this country’s protracted involvement in a Holy Land War, and after the economic collapse has ended all oil imports, the novel spans a period of two weeks in late October. The townspeople inhabit a world without electricity, rely on their own feet or horsepower for transportation, and subsist by exchanging their expertise in a field like carpentry or medicine for food and other necessities.

Kunstler provides enough exposition early in the novel to reacquaint readers with his America and to make it possible for a new reader to enjoy this book without having read the previous one. Having that acquaintance with a World Made by Hand makes it possible to fully appreciate his characters and their interactions.

Often violent, this novel reveals a time when order, particularly outside of Union Grove, no longer exists. Bandits like Billy Bones roam the county, looking for food, sex, something of value that can be exchanged later, or the material that will provide another stanza to their ballad of misdeeds.

Religious faith is often cast in doubt. Characters sometimes turn to the comfort of medicinal herbs and attach magical significance to the associations that we Euro-Americans have carried with us regarding the end of October.

Kunstler doesn’t ignore the sexual lives of his characters, proving particularly adept when describing the intimate relations of married couples. To his credit, Kunstler has created two strong female characters, Jane Ann Holder and Barbara Maglie. Young women, however, often have to give freely of their bodies.

In addition to the occasional sexism, one other drawback to the novel is the medical knowledge of an eleven-year-old, who is able to perform a sophisticated medical procedure after only having watched and assisted his father.

Kunstler, at first, splits the narrative by pursuing the actions of several different characters. At the climax of the novel, these characters are brought together in ways not expected. This control of Kunstler’s over his characters and his plot causes the reader to move through the novel quickly and to desire more of what happens in Union Grove, New York after the America we know has changed so drastically.