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Staff Recommendation

As soon as I began Elsewhere by Alexis Schaitkin, I knew that I was going to treasure it. Schaitkin starts right off with prose so dreamy and ethereal, it almost felt like a haunting, like there was a ghost peering over my shoulder as I read the words. One of the key elements of this book is absence, the fading away and losing oneself to the expectations of the world around you, especially in relation to girlhood, to becoming a woman, a wife, a mother. This becomes eerily evident as soon as you reach page four, where the author writes, “Young boys could often be seen at the edge of the forest, huddled around piles of sticks and leaves and paper, holding stolen matches to the tinder until it caught and watching it burn. Young girls concealed themselves, crouching among the foxgloves in dooryard gardens, burying themselves under heavy quilts in their parents’ beds, playing at being gone.”

Our main character Vera is from a secluded community, a town swallowed by forests and mountains and heavy clouds. This community knows very little about the world that exists outside of it, and things happen in this town that are unheard of elsewhere. The main thing being that some mothers in Vera’s town simply vanish, fading into the clouds, never to be seen or heard from again. It is this very phenomenon that knits the community together so tightly, that makes them what they are. They know more about absence than they do presence, watching all of these women disappear into nothingness, and having no choice but to accept it.

These women, always mothers, disappear when some facet of their mothering doesn’t live up to how it ‘should.’ Letting a child go to school with their shoes on the wrong feet, or not knowing things that are expected to be the instinctive knowledge of a mother are all potential clues to the fading away of a woman. This book comments on just how much pressure there is in our world for mothers to parent in a certain way to be considered a good mother. If a child does something wrong, this immediately reflects badly on the mother, never the father. It is this pressure that makes mothers, as in the book, almost disappear from themselves, losing parts of themselves to the clouds because of trying to meet nearly impossible societal expectations.

Elsewhere is a beautiful book, filled with fantastical elements as well as realistic issues. Schaitkin filled my mind with intense images, making the town in the novel feel as though it really surrounded me, with the way she describes the color and scent of the flowers growing along the houses, the refreshingly cold river, the strong clouds engulfing everything. The book also made me truly think about motherhood and how it is judged in our society, and I believe it could spark some important conversations on how mothers are treated and looked upon.

-Jade

Staff Recommendation

There is a content warning for this book for the following subject matter: violence, domestic abuse, sexual abuse.

Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian is a historical fiction novel that pulls you deep into a world of darkness and drowned desires. Set in the Puritan world of Boston in 1662, Mary Deerfield has found herself married to a cruel and vicious man. On one horrific night, he commits an act of extreme violence against her, and she decides that she has had enough. After being married to Thomas Deerfield for five years, Mary begins the arduous journey of attempting to convince the Boston court that her situation merits a divorce. Mary is a character that I immediately admired, with the way that she stood up for herself and demanded an end to her mistreatment, no matter how taboo it was to do so during the time period. She quickly realized that she would do just about anything to get away from her husband. But at the same time, Mary grew up in a very strict church, and has been plagued by an intense fear for her soul since childhood. The threat of eternal damnation is always looming over her like an ominous New England storm cloud. And a woman that speaks up for herself is sure to be called a witch.

The author delves into several important topics within the story, such as domestic abuse and the fact that so many women are not believed when they come forward. It definitely strikes a chord, living in this day and age. The author also explores how the Puritans used a certain ‘holy hierarchy’ to keep people in their place, to keep a specific group of people in power. Women were kept under lock and key, like birds in a cage. It was a very prominent belief that a woman belonged to her husband, that she must be subservient in all ways. The beautiful thing about this story, though, is that Mary listens to her own intuition and desires, however afraid for her soul she has been taught to be. This is what I liked most about the book, that constant internal conflict going on inside of Mary, like a tug of war between her salvation and her own hungers.

This novel harbors a darkness within its pages that isn’t suitable for everyone, but if you are interested in the witch trials that took place in America in the 1600s and you don’t mind a little gore, this book is for you. If you do like this book, then I would also recommend The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner!

-Jade