As featured in Merrimack Valley Magazine. Reprinted with permission ©2016 512 Media, Inc.
If literature is food for the soul, then Katie Schickel's debut novel Housewitch would be a batch of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies. As a childhood devotee of all things fairy and fantastic, this book had me at the first mention of a "Dark Witch". The story has all the elements of a classic heroic tale: orphan heroine, trio of sister witches, cast of oddball characters, and a contrast of worlds, times, and places.
Allison Darling is busy raising three kids and trying to fit into affluent small town life. Local readers will recognize the fictional Monrovia as Newburyport, which Allison's grandmother selected as a hideaway for her children in the 1960s, since "...everyone was too drunk or despondent or idle to take heed of newcomers." Allison's life rolls along mundanely until a bratty kid inadvertently drives her to turn an apple into an onion while she monitors an apple-bobbing booth, and the fun begins. The event triggers memories of a family legacy, and reveals truths about the complicated form of care her absent mother provided. The story unfolds alternately in the past and the present, providing eerie background for Allison's feelings of isolation and her desire to belong in the glittering crowd of Glamour Girls; Monrovia moms who all seem more attractive, successful, and happy than her. But there is an explanation for their enchanted lives, and for the turnaround the town itself experienced. She is invited to join the Glamour Soap Company headed by Astrid Laveau, and begins to receive baskets of ingredients and instructions for creating potions to help make life easier. Allison is suddenly privy to great parking spots, has house pets that feed and clean up after themselves, and experiences new found marital passion. But when she refuses to play her assigned role in shutting down a house for learning-disabled adults, Astrid gets mad.
When the protagonist's estranged mother dies, Allison learns that her aunt, the evil witch Freya, feels threatened because Allison is the eldest daughter of the eldest daughter "... who stands at the threshold, the liminal state. It is the line between magic and witchcraft. One foot in this world, one in the spirit world." At the funeral, Allison meets her adoptive twin brothers, dwarves Jinathon and Jonathon, and learns more about the family she never knew. The twins run away with the urn containing her mother's "spirit element" because it has powers too strong for her to handle. The pace picks up from there with broomstick rides, $6,500 Christian Louboutin shoes, cats coming back from the grave, a near-miss at adultery, cremains stolen from a wastewater treatment plant, and a child at death's door.
Housewitch is an intoxicating mix of magic, Mother Goose rhymes, and regional references, served up with all the coziness of Bilbo Baggin's tea and toast. Be sure to add Katie Schickel to your list of must-read Valley writers.