The Witch of Hebron
© 2010 James Howard Kunstler
The future isn’t what it used to be. When the oil wells ran dry, the global economy and every nation built on petroleum collapsed. This is the dawn of a new age, one centered on self-sustaining towns with a close relationship to the soil — a world made by hand, where most of the population works in agriculture and the few which don’t are busy turning the resources that remain into usable goods; they are carpenters, cobblers, James Howard Kunstler’s original novel in this world established the conditions and allowed us to visit the town of Union Grove as it slowly began rebuilding itself again in a most eventful summer. The Witch of Hebron begins in the early fall and culminates in Halloween, a fitting setting given the eerie tone of the book. The central character of The Witch of Hebron is Jasper Copeland, son of the town doctor, who flees after an act of revenge that ends in death. Outside the confines of Union Grove, darkness awaits, hiding desperate poverty and grotesque individuals. Jasper starts off as a boy on the cusp of adolescence, and what little innocence he could call his own is ripped away when he is coerced into becoming the protege of a highwayman who refers to himself as an Honorable Bandit and insists on singing a ballad about himself to all his victims. The citizens of Union Grove are still trying to find themselves, adjusting slowly to their new environment. The adults have seen everything they took for granted destroyed; the rules seem to be broken. Anything might be possible — they cannot tell what beauties or horrors the future might hold. Although Kunstler is not a man given toward the supernatural, it permeates this new world. Even the skeptical have been so shaken by all they have witnessed that they wonder if maybe there aren’t such things as devils and witches: the industrialized world is dead, and with it the scientific thinking it encouraged. Kunstler develops their uncertainties and plays them to full advantage: the reader is left to sort through the ambiguities. Is this is a fantasy, or are Brother Jobe and the witch playing within the same rules as today’s mentalists, phone psychics, and witch doctors?
Even without the supernatural element, The Witch of Hebron‘s setting is unsettling, a mix of the old and new — the 18th century seems to have been reborn against the decaying background of the 20th. Characters’ dangerous journeys through the woods take place not on old dirt pig-trails, but heavily damaged country highways. One flaw in Kunstler’s world-building is that he resurrects too much of the old too quickly, particularly the language of occupations which have only recently been reborn: characters who are our contemporaries, living in the same world we live in now, are suddenly talking about sutleries and haberdasheries. While these artisans would revive, would they refer to themselves in antiquidated ways? Would the new shoemaker not call himself a shoemaker, and not a cobbler? At least the town doctor does his own surgeries and isn’t recommending people to the barber in Old West style. Perhaps it’s Kunstler’s way of emphasizing the divide between the world we’re expecting the future to become, and the world it might turn out to be. Peak oil and the collapse of modern civilization are matters which Kunstler almost seems to anticipate with relish: they are the destruction of everything he despises, and that destruction will allow a better world to be created. But this isn’t wish-fulfillment: while his imagined world has its pleasures, the entire book is smeared with blood. It is a violent and disturbing world.
While the plot is a little thin (it’s more a season in the town’s life with a little journeys giving a thread of consistency), the setting continues to fascinate me. Kunstler’s next work is nonfiction (Too Much Magic), but his third World Made by Hand novel should take place in the winter.