Author Quan Barry speaks to Ballerina Book Club about her spellbinding book “We Ride Upon Sticks”
The young girls who spurred the deadly 1692 Salem witch trials did not act in isolation. Collectively, their power to destroy the lives of those affected accumulated with their testimonies. Over 300 years later, novelist and poet Quan Barry wondered what modern teenagers in the exact location of the events might do if given their own brush with power. She explores one possible outcome — win field hockey games and rebel against societal expectations — in her latest book “We Ride Upon Sticks.”
“Every three hundred years or so, our kind gets loosed upon an unsuspecting world,” the book’s opening pages reveal. “And this time around, the history books would know us as the 1989 Danvers High School Women’s Varsity Field Hockey Team.”
Barry’s novel, our Ballerina Book Club pick for November, is a time capsule. Set in the 1980s, the chapters find texture in the materials that make up a decade full of hairspray, teased bangs, plastic cassette tapes and landline phones with really long cords. The magical bits, of which there are many, tether the book to the 1600s through geography, with the bulk of the novel cast in Danvers, Mass. — formerly known as Salem Village, site of the 1692 witch trials.
“I was really interested in thinking about, ‘What if you take girls basically of the same temperament as those in 1692, but you transport them almost 300 years to 1989?’” Barry posited in an interview with ALL ARTS in November. “What kinds of mischief will they get up to? What kinds of things will they learn about themselves along the way?”
As for the fusion of team sports and magic, Barry explained that for her, this was a natural fit and an avenue to explore women and sports in a way that is not often captured in popular media, such as film and television.
“To me, a team is a coven in certain kinds of ways. You’re coming together. You have shared goals. If you’re working well together, you can almost read each other’s minds,” she said. “By having a team and introducing the witchcraft element, it allowed me to look at these friendships under an even deeper microscope.”
When we meet the field hockey team — 10 girls (one of them being a direct descendant of original Salem accuser Ann Putnam) and one boy — at the heart of the action, they seem to be carrying out a tradition of losing. That is until the team’s goalkeeper, Mel Boucher, decides she has had it. While at training camp, she summons a notebook emblazoned with the smoldering gaze of teen heartthrob Emilio Estevez and scrawls the makings of a devilish bargain. One by one, the players sign the list with a swipe of a purple pen and get a blue band of fabric (cut from a tube sock) tied around their upper arm. The rules declare that this piece of initiating clothing must not be taken off — a thread that binds the players, seemingly, through space.
Magic seeps in like a shared joke, and little by little, the field hockey team begins to win. Hungry to keep the spark of their newfound power alive, they find they must feed “Emilio” with increasingly “bad” behavior. These deeds, shifting from pranks to accusations with career-altering effects, get documented in the notebook, creating a tome of maleficent actions.
Barry grew up and played field hockey on her high school team in Danvers in the 1980s — a biographical detail that imbues the book with spatial specificity. The references are as clearly developed as memories one might find stashed in a photo album. Recall the pizza place with the sticky vinyl seats you squished into as a kid, and you can start to get the feel.
The book wasn’t always going to be set in Danvers. In the beginning, Barry toyed with the idea of gathering her coven in Salem, but she was convinced by a friend to chart more local territories. The idea still gave her pause, and she noted that many people don’t realize that Salem’s footprint used to be “much bigger” and that historically Danvers was once Salem Village.
Her friend’s solution for this possible lack of context? “It’s your book. Why don’t you tell them?”
The suggestion granted the author what she described as permission to write about her hometown. “It really freed me up because I do know the history of Danvers, and I know the local haunts,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of the places that are mentioned in the book actually exist.” (A precision that drove her editor “nuts” as she was fact-checking the novel.)
Songs from the 1980s sing through the pages, catching recognition like tunes wafting out of a rolled-down car window. The titles come fast, a procession that could fill an entire jukebox with jams. There are the usual suspects: Bruce Springsteen (“Born in the USA” factors large) and Duran Duran. But there are also artists who are “bit more obscure,” like Cinderella.
“I decided that I wanted to go a little bit deeper, which to me just makes it seem a little bit more authentic,” Barry said about her eclectic collection of musicians. “It’s not just the greatest hits of the ‘80s.”
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As much as “We Ride Upon Sticks” draws on the aesthetics and references of the 1980s, it cuts sugary elements with nods to ways that the decade failed. Under the haze of hairspray, Barry’s novel challenges popular depictions of the era found in hallmark ’80s films such as “Pretty in Pink” or “Sixteen Candles.”
“If you go back and look at a lot of those teen movies, they’re problematic now,” she explained. “At the time we didn’t think about their misogyny, or the xenophobia, or the homophobia, but it’s definitely there in the movies. And writing this book gave me an opportunity to go back and to complicate the ‘80s and look at it with a more truthful eye.”
The notion of squaring the past with the awareness of the present filters into the structure of the sentences, which are sometimes interrupted by a voice that calls out what’s wrong with something that has just been said or done. Barry likened this to the pop-up videos that you might catch on television, a little text bubble “blooping” on to the screen to provide context.
“I knew that I just couldn’t let certain things pass; I also knew that there were some things that were important enough that I wanted to underscore them,” she said, explaining that she might otherwise let a reader do this work on their own. “I needed this voice to be able to come in and to say definitively, ‘Yes, this is not a good thing.’”
Facing the underpinning structural issues of the time period allows for the characters to undergo transformations, undoing stereotypes held within typecast roles such as the “Brainiac” or the “It Girl.” And though the book is told from a “we” perspective, the stories vacillate between the individual plights of the players, demonstrating how race, family, religion, gender and notions of lineage inform the lives of the teammates.
How much the characters’ evolution into who they become has to do with “magic” versus emerging bouts of unhinged confidence is largely up to the reader, though Barry clears a lot of this up by the end of the novel.
“I wasn’t really interested in tying it down,” she said in regards to definitively naming the players’ actions as witchcraft. “I hopefully worked in enough ambiguity that people feel like they can make their own interpretations as to why things are happening and what’s going on.”
Regardless of how the girls and the one boy on the team arrive to their new understandings of themselves, the true power in the book rests in the players’ ability to rebel against standards set for them by a culture that wants them to adhere to certain expectations of gender, race or class.
“In many ways,” she said, “witchcraft and field hockey, and the team and their friendships, are vehicles that help them have the strength to be their true selves.”
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