By James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010, $24.00
Imagine a perfect storm of environmental catastrophes. Climate change has spread unchecked. Suburban sprawl has swallowed land and natural resources. Radioactive fallout from nuclear terrorist attacks has killed countless people and rendered vast territories uninhabitable. Oil is unavailable due to a combination of depletion and international tensions.
Now imagine the consequences. Manufacturing and transportation grind to a halt. Power plants sputter and stop. Infrastructure crumbles. Public health deteriorates and pandemic emergencies kill millions. Governments at all levels collapse, and the country tumbles backward into a pre-industrial economy. The good news? Local communities are forced to reinvent themselves.
This is the world James Howard Kunstler envisioned in his 2008 novel, World Made by Hand: A Novel, and that he returns to in its sequel, The Witch of Hebron. Both novels take place in the village of Union Grove, New York, a town that now depends on the old ways—horse and foot transportation, handmade goods, ingenuity, and hard work. Suburban sprawl has been abandoned, and the absence of fossil fuels means that people once again depend on wood fires, backyard gardens, and locally sourced products.
Readers familiar with Kunstler’s non-fiction, especially The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, will recognize the environmental horrors that the inhabitants of this fictional world face, as well as his prescriptions for coping with the collapse of civilization. He’s been warning us. And see? Now it’s happened.
Of course, fashioning a fictional world—even one that reflects the grim reality of the not-so-distant future—isn’t enough. A novel also needs a plot. In World Made by Hand, that plot—which included hints of the supernatural—involved a mission to rescue the crew of a boat held hostage by the corrupt boss of Albany, the erstwhile state capital. The plot of the new book involves yet another rescue mission, and this time the supernatural is more than just hinted at: a woman who claims to be a witch plays a pivotal role.
Jasper Copeland, the eleven-year-old son of Union Grove’s doctor, runs away from home. On the road, he falls into the company of Billy Bones, a singing bandit who values no one’s life but his own. Reluctantly, Jasper’s father asks Brother Jobe of the New Faithers—a Christian cult that has taken up residence in the village—to help find his son. In the process, Jobe and his men wind up in the home of Barbara Maglie, a self-described witch who helps facilitate the novel’s climax.
All of which is entertaining, heart-warming, and, mostly, redemptive: The bad guys get their grisly just rewards, and the good guys, while flawed, manage to redeem themselves (even if they do need the help of a little witchcraft). There’s also an oddly comforting message as we prepare to cope with Kunstler’s environmental apocalypse—life after oil may be a struggle, but it has its rewards. We can learn to live with less, to be less wasteful, to build stronger, smarter, friendlier communities. A simpler life can be a good life.
But—and this is a very big “but”—what’s scary about Kunstler’s novel is what he appears to be saying about women. In dystopian Union Grove, women are decidedly subservient to men. No woman has a position of authority. Among the New Faithers, one woman has a prominent role because she is fertile and can reproduce, whereas the others seem to exist primarily for Brother Jobe’s pleasure. In the larger town of Glen Falls, the city to which runaway Jasper has fled, the only women he encounters are prostitutes and a girl who is destined to become one. Even Barbara, the witch of Hebron, is, basically, a prostitute; in the economy of the new times, that’s how she survives.
So what is Kunstler’s message? Is he saying that this is the natural role of women? That society can cope with certain environmental disaster by returning women to secondary status? That this inferior status is somehow ideal? That as we struggle to rebuild the world, women are good only for labor in the fields, the kitchen, and the bedroom?
If one overlooks this flaw, and some readers will not, The Witch of Hebron offers an engrossing story of ordinary people who struggle mightily to overcome nearly unimaginable hardships—hardships that may become all too real, too soon, unless we heed the author’s dire warnings.