The Witch of Hebron

SUBHEAD: A review of James Howard Kunstler's new novel concerning our Post Peak Oil world in the near future.
Image above: "Herbal Godess". From (
[Editor’s note: To our surprise we received an unsolicited advance copy of James Kunstler’s just released new novel “The Witch of Hebron”. A hint as to why we were given the book was on the packaging address; ‘To: Juan WIlson - The Garden Island News”. Back in March of 2008 we reviewed Kunstler’s “World Made By Hand” as one of our bi-weekly columns in The Garden Island. We will submit this review to The Garden Island, and see if it gets printed. James Kunstler is now on a national book signing and promotional tour.] KUNSTLER’S TALENT James Howard Kunstler transformed my life with his 2005 book “The Long Emergency”. In it he laid out our fate concerning Peak Oil with precision. His realizations about the oncoming financial and political collapse and the failure of our suburban mind set to deal with the ensuing problems is playing out right now. Kunstler is a keen observer of American culture (15 years a writer with Rolling Stone) with a sharp and wicked tongue. His non-fiction style is often to lampoon and satirize our condition. Not so in his recent fiction. He has dedicated himself to writing what might be called “period” fiction. Even though that period lies in our near future, it uses a language better suited to the 19th century than the 21st. Kunstler’s interest in the architecture, crafts and trades of the pre-modern America has lead him to develop a detailed knowledge of our recently lost language. His use of vocabulary will send you off to your dictionary for the meaning of words common a century ago that are mysterious to today’s blogging generation. “The Witch of Hebron” is Kunstler’s new novel. It takes place in the Autumn after the events in his previous Post-Apocalypse adventure “World Made By Hand”. The subtitle of “The Witch of Hebron” is “A World Made by Hand Novel”. Kunstler has stated that there are four books in this series that are characterized by the four seasons of Northeast America. “World Made By Hand” took place over the summer of a year about a decade after the collapse of the industrialized world. WORLD MADE BY HAND In that summer scavenging gangs competed with residents of the small town of Union Grove, NY. The town was recently chosen as a new home by an unusual Christian New Faith sect, lead by Brother Jobe, which had moved north from a ravaged American Southland. They had purchased Union Grove’s abandoned high school and were reshaping it into an unusual new community. In the outlying country a new brand of feudalism put ex-car-dealers and insurance-salesmen to work in the fields of land owner Steven Bullock. As it turns out, the disciplined leadership of Brother Jobe and Steven Bullock produce more for their followers than the timid egalitarian townsfolk of Union Grove, or the tribal gang foraging at the landfill. Each of these four elemental groups have lead characters that play out the narrative. The result is an action adventure not unlike a period 19th century American Western. My characterization of the genre is American Eastern.
THE WITCH OF HEBRON In “The Witch of Hebron” we are again in Union Grove. Many of the same characters from “World Made by Hand” are brought back in “The Witch of Hebron”; the mayor/carpenter/fiddler Robert Earle, the reverend/sheriff Loren Holder and the town’s only doctor, Jerry Copeland. But the central character is eleven year old Jasper, the son of Dr. Jerry Copeland. A central element in the story is the degree to which the boy has learned the trade of his father, and his own natural gifts in the art of medicine. But first the boy is put in a situation in which he chooses a senseless act of revenge against the New Faith order, which results in his abandoning his family for a life on the road. He becomes the prodigal son and soon meets up with the teenage bandit named Billy Bones, and he falls under Billy’s influence and enters into a life of crime. Billy is a charming but deadly sociopath with aspirations of making himself a legend, in the mold of Billy the Kid. The book follows Jasper’s transformation from a child, to an outlaw and into a young man. This book is an epic adventure similar in some ways to “Huckleberry Finn”. As you might expect, another central character in the book is Barbara Maglie, the vital and attractive witch of the title. She lives alone in a cottage near the road leading north from the village of Union Grove to the nearest remnant of a city, Glenn Falls, NY. She has clients she heals mentally, emotionally and sexually. Perhaps more than any other character in the two books, Barbara represents the most optimistic view of our future. She has mastered the nutritional and pharmaceutical subtleties of the place she lives in. She has learned the crafts and art required to sustain our spirits in the difficult times we enter. Most important, her actions are directed by a loving heart and tolerant mind. Barbara engages with all the main characters of the narrative as if she were at the center of a web.
The books ends dramatically on Halloween night in Union Grove. POST APOCALYPSE I have been partial to Post-Apocalyptic stories. My first was almost 50 years ago when I read Neville Shute’s 1953 novel “On the Beach”. It detailed the aftermath of World War III in 1963 (it almost happened). In this story, the last of humanity finds ways to fulfill their remaining days before the radioactive clouds of death engulf them. Fifteen years later I read Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle’s 1977 book “Lucifer’s Hammer”. It follows life in the mountains of California after a comet crashes into the Pacific Ocean and destroys civilization as we know it. This is a gun toting survivalist tale that includes tsunamis, plagues, famines and battles amongst scavengers and cannibals. It ends on the "optimistic" techno-utopian note that a surviving nuclear plant will be the seed from which to regrow civilization. I recently finished Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel “The Road” that details the agonizing father and son journey across the dead landscape of America’s ashen remains. Across the horizon the plants are dead. People eat dusty canned food and even babies. The father's only hope is to keep walking south. Kunstler’s “World Made By Hand” series is more positive, with a more realistic perspective than the three post apocalyptic novels mentioned above. Kunstler sees a future in which life is simpler and more rewarding. It is tough, but worth living. As in the first novel, “The Witch of Hebron” has adventure and violence. Several story lines are running throughout and Kunstler cuts masterfully between them, making this a page turner. STORY CRITIQUE I have four criticisms of the book. One: The side story involving Steven Bullock is not well integrated into the narrative and seems almost like a movie trailer created to promote the book. Two: The disparate adventures of the book rely on too many coincidences to link them together and could have been avoided with better plotting. Three: The people of Union Grove are too insulated from the recent disasters of their past. It’s as though the last century never occurred and the turbulence of it’s collapse will calm quickly. Last year Kunstler staged a three act play entitled “The Big Slide” that follows the well-to-do Freeman family through an Autumn weekend in their Adirondack vacation home. The cause of their unscheduled visit is what appears to be a coup d’etat in the White House and the uprising of local militias all over the nation in response. The electricity has stopped working and the unfriendliness of the “locals”makes to dangerous to be out and about. This play fills in that time between now and the events in the “World Made by Hand”. Four: The character Jasper Copeland is too young, at eleven, to have the medical skills he possesses. Moreover, the moral and ethical context he is placed in is wasted on a pre-pubescent. I think the book would be more realistic and poignant if Jasper were a few years older. CONCLUSION I think the first two books of the World Made by Hand series are valuable in setting the tone of what we might achieve, as the old systems we have relied on fall apart and must be replaced. I know from personal conversation with Kunstler that he has cinematic aspirations for his stories. I think that they are justified. His intent to write a novel about the community of Union Grove for each season of the year is interesting. He leaves some hints in “The Witch of Hebron” that trouble is coming to Robert Earle in the next novel. Earle was the protagonist in “World Made By Hand”, and, in my opinion, the character closest to the real life James Kunstler. I suspect that next Winter in Union Grove will be long and cold. See also:

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