Clearly I’ve been missing out on a well-known fact; Ami McKay is an amazing writer. Many people are already aware of this, she’s a popular Canadian author, and has won lots awards for her previous books. I’m not sure why it took me this long to discover her, but I’m so glad I did.
In honour of Halloween, I picked up The Witches of New York. It was perfect October reading with lots of ghosts, goblins and witchcraft to get me in the spooky mood. It’s about two women living in New York City who own a tea shop, but they also do palm readings and practice spells on the side, so a good Earl Grey isn’t the only thing on the menu. A young girl named Beatrice joins them after moving to the city to escape her boring life, and while there she finds out she has special powers. But, while these three women join forces in creating a unique business model, evil lurks in the form of overzealous religious figures who are going on a modern-day witch hunt, killing whoever gets in their path.
Even though these aforementioned fanatics are the most obvious threat to Adelaide, Eleanor and Beatrice, the lack of women’s rights at the time (1880) is another obstacle that is constantly thrown their way. McKay is at her best when subtly describing the constant barrage of discrimination that these women face; their landlord is reluctant to rent directly to women, wives are at the mercy of their abusive husbands, and an asylum hosts women that have been committed due to signs of ‘hysteria’ (i.e. raising their voices above what is commonly accepted at the time). A, E and B are determined yet graceful feminists in this time. They are as independent as possible for that time period, and I found myself wishing I could step right into their tea shop to have a nice conversation with them. The story focuses on the beginnings of witchcraft quite a bit, and it seems as though McKay makes the argument that witches are history’s first examples of a ‘feminist’. For instance they fought for women’s rights over their own bodies by finding ways of halting conception; for things like that they were condemned as evil.
The plotting is also masterful in this book, there’s quite a bit going on, but not so much to confuse the reader. In fact, the minor characters introduced along the way serve to keep the plot moving and never muddle the forward-motion of the narrative. Mini-histories of particular witches are described in quite a bit of detail, but it all comes together in the end, and I never begrudged McKay for taking us off in another direction for a short while.
I can see why McKay’s books appeal to many people, there seems to be a character for everyone to identify with. My favourite was Eleanor, mainly because of her skill with tea making, which is a talent I wish I shared. This is literally the perfect book to curl up with on October 31. Or, you can check out McKay in person at Wordfest on November 8. Enjoy!