We Ride Upon Sticks

Quan Barry
Pantheon ($26.95)

by Jaime Miller

In We Ride Upon Sticks, Quan Barry seamlessly fuses two topics that seemingly couldn’t be further apart: witchcraft and women’s field hockey. With her stunning characterization and a picture-perfect glimpse into the rivalry and friendship involved in high school sports, Barry pulls the reader right out of 2020 and pushes them into Danvers, Massachusetts, circa 1988.

One might assume that a hockey stick and a witch’s broom would have nothing in common; Barry proves that assumption very, very wrong. She constructs a playful “zero to hero” story about the team at Danvers High School, detailing the experiences of the players as they start dipping their toes into witchcraft, signing their names in a notebook that will supposedly help them get some wins. The narrative follows the team as they see how far the “magic” will take them if they keep pushing. From pulling fire alarms to beating cars with their hockey sticks, the girls grow more and more committed to keeping their magic—and their winning streak—alive.

Barry skillfully constructs distinct personalities for more than eleven different characters in this novel. Describing one of the team members, Barry says, “it was like she had constructed a wall to keep us out, a sunroom off the kitchen where she could sit and drink her Earl Grey in peace while the rest of us crowded around a plate of stale bagels in the breakfast nook.”

Barry’s experience playing on the 1989 Danvers High School women’s field hockey team proves to be invaluable for her novel; the bond between all eleven members of the women’s hockey team (featuring one boy) are perfect depictions of the love and rivalry that all teammates feel when playing a sport at a public high school. Bus rides are chances to have a “real honest-to-god talk, not Hollywood propaganda, not tonight-on-a-very-special-episode-of-agitprop” about sex and “Gatherings” were really just bonfires with some alcohol and dancing. Even though their Gatherings involve someone playing the role of priestess and the occasional Ouija board, the spirit of their meetups boils down to a typical high school party.

Even the magic elements of this novel have a very “high school” feel. The witchcraft begins with strips of a sweaty blue gym sock, a purple gel pen, and a notebook featuring a picture of Emilio Estevez on the cover. Living in a town so close to the home of the infamous Salem Witch Trials, it’s only natural that students at Danvers High School dabble in the dark arts, especially in the 1980s; by making witchcraft a playful, improvised, last-ditch effort of the team to win some games, Barry makes it believable and hilarious.

We Ride Upon Sticks, which seems like a funny little book about teenage witches, provides a useful glimpse into the depth of the relationships on sports teams and what public high school puts teenagers through. For anyone looking for a truly unique book that has them laughing throughout and tearing up by the end, Barry’s latest novel is the perfect read.

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