"Every three hundred years or so, our kind gets loosed upon an unsuspecting world. And this time around, the history books would know us as the 1989 Danvers High School Women's Varsity Field Hockey Team."
At the beginning of Quan Barry's charming teen witchcraft-slash-field-hockey novel “We Ride Upon Sticks,” the Danvers team is remarkable only for the frequency of their losses. They are like the Bad News Bears, with the caveat that "even though up until now we were reliably pretty terrible, nobody would ever say our hearts were in the right place."
The team's luck changes when its members pledge themselves to the forces of eternal darkness by signing their names into a spiral notebook with actor Emilio Estevez's face on it. They promise each other to follow "any urges" they get "all the way to the end no matter what."
Under the influence of "Emilio and his dark splendors," the team begins to cause trouble. At first, they play innocent pranks: a can of sardines in the teacher's lounge; replacing the Home-Ec ironing water with bleach. But soon they escalate: smashing up a car; an accusation of sexual misconduct.
Emilio grows fat and powerful with the details of their sins, which are dutifully recorded and stapled into his pages. But in time, the girls come to serve more than one dark master. Jen Fiorenza (left forward) has serious 80s bangs, a blond pouf dubbed The Claw, which exerts a malevolent agency of its own. The Claw receives some of the novel's best mock-heroic epithets: it is "a vanilla bundt cake"; a "black mirror"; a "one-pronged trident"; a "lighthouse atop a promontory"; a "gavel just waiting to bring down Its furious judgment."
Soon, the team reaps the harvest of their sins: win after win on the hockey field. Double scoops at Baskin Robbins. An abundance of prom dates. And finally, a sighting of (could it be?) the embodied Emilio Estevez, walking out of the local mall carrying two Orange Juliuses in his fleshly hands.
Barry, who has published four collections of poetry, definitely did the English homework. References to “Macbeth,” “The Crucible,” and the “Malleus Maleficarum” are sprinkled throughout like so much Jovan Musk. But she also is gloriously literate in the advertising lingo of the late eighties — hence losing one's virginity is "taking the Nestea plunge."
Pop culture, too — when the team dances naked in the moonlight, surrounded by flames, it is to Janet Jackson's greatest hits. Pat Benatar pounds throughout this novel, "Hit me with your best shot" being applicable to a surprising number of situations, athletic, romantic, and supernatural.
Barry is the queen of the register shift: At a moment of darkest witchcraft, the elected virgin lies on the floor, "her glossy black hair like spilled ink. Becca made a mental note to ask her later if she was still using Prell."
But the pleasure of the book is all texture, at the expense of tension. It is too whimsical to maintain suspense, and the team members' personal histories are too long, despite winning interludes like a series of mock college admissions essays.
“We Ride Upon Sticks” is not really for teenagers, unless they are unusually self-mythologizing teenagers. It is for the kind of adults who watch “Stranger Things” and still have, somewhere, an athletic award inscribed on a paper plate. But Barry is careful not to let nostalgia paper over the real ways in which things were worse in the 1980s, particularly for queer people and people of color. At times, this point feels labored, particularly in the case of a trans character, but it is still welcome.
The true source of the team's power is revealed at the end of the novel, but ultimately, whether or not the members of the 1989 Danvers High School Women's Varsity Field Hockey Team are real witches is beside the point. None of the people — mostly women, often young — who were killed in the witch hunts of the early modern period did what they were accused of: flying through the air; bewitching their neighbors; cavorting with demons; sleeping with the devil and his servants. But I've always wondered: Did any of them try? What is it that makes someone a witch — is it the ability, the exercise, or just the desire? Because if wanting is witchcraft, maybe all teenagers are witches at heart.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.