A little late to the party, I know, but I finally got around to watching Robert Eggers’ directorial debut, The VVitch (which I’m just going to be calling The Witch from here on out)! And it is very very good, slow-build horror.
The Witch takes place in 1630s New England, where a family is being banished from their Puritan community for theological differences. William, Katherine, and their four children set out alone to try to eke out a living in the wilderness. Katherine has a fifth child, but the baby is stolen, and ultimately the family descends ever deeper into a spiral of fear and suspicion (of the woods surrounding them, and eventually of each other as well).
The movie explores many complicated themes, including the effects of long-term isolation on the human psyche, the power of faith, and ultimately with the kinds of fear and paranoia that can result when people seek desperately to explain the hardships life throws at them. It’s a story that could have played out the same way regardless of whether there really is a witch out there in the woods, and for me that’s where the real horror lies (though I also loved the unabashedly uncivilized and otherwordly glimpses we get into the witching world!)
I have read (and enjoyed!) most of Zoe Whittall’s novels, but I almost passed on The Best Kind of People, because the premise of ‘school teacher accused of sexual abuse of students’ is one I’ve seen more than enough of for a lifetime. But, the book was short-listed for the Giller Prize this year, and I decided to give it a shot.
I am so glad I did!
Whittall’s treatment of this subject matter, which is simultaneously extremely sensitive and (in my opinion) massively overused in all forms of fiction, is nothing short of ground-breaking. At no point does the novel give in to the prurience so often present in these kinds of stories – we never hear any details about the sexual misconduct in question. Instead, The Best Kind of People centres itself around the experiences of the family of the man accused, in particular his sixteen-year-old daughter Sadie (who is only a few years older than the girls her father is accused of assaulting) and his wife Joan, neither of whom can reconcile the accusations with the man they know and love.
Ultimately, the novel is a masterful examination of the ways in which our society responds to these kinds of crimes, particularly when the perpetrator is respected person with a great deal of privilege. Sadie and Joan find themselves variously vilified, ostracized and supported by various community members – including support from people they wish would stay well away from them – all while desperately trying to sort through their own feelings, and what it will mean for their lives if their respective father and husband is indeed guilty.
This is a deeply emotional novel, full of well-drawn, complex and realistic characters. Well worth a read!
If you’ve already read and loved The Best Kind of People, check out some other great books from Canadian women, or take a look at other Scotiabank Giller Prize nominees and winners.
Ivan Coyote is the kind of storyteller who finds their way into the heart of anyone who takes the time to listen. In fact, one of the stories in Tomboy Survival Guide is kind of about just that! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
If you don’t know who Coyote is, I implore you to look into their work – they are a Canadian writer and storyteller who grew up in the Yukon. Their stories reflect their endless fascination with and love for people of all kinds, and they have a remarkable ability to pull beautiful things out of tragedy and pain. All of their story collections thrum with humanity (to the point where they even bring out the reluctant poet in me, apparently!)
Their most recent collection, Tomboy Survival Guide, is particularly dear to my heart, though. I originally discovered Coyote when they were touring with Rae Spoon, one of my favourite Canadian musical artists. The two artists collaborated on on the multimedia show Gender Failure, exploring their experiences growing up and failing to fit into the gender binary. I saw this show three times while it was touring, and I cried at each performance; it was that good. (The stories and lyrics from this show were also published as a book by the same title, so go ahead and check it out* for yourself!)
Tomboy Survival Guide also follows up on a collaborative performance project of the same title, that Coyote developed with an all-tomboy musical ensemble, and it explores many of the same themes as Gender Failure. Here Coyote digs back into their own life, growing up from their tomboy roots into a young butch adult, and finally embracing the uncategorizable nature of their gendered experience. Funny, vulnerable, and sometimes sad, this is ultimately a heart-warming collection of memories that, like all of Coyote’s writing, inspires me to be a stronger and more compassionate person.
Maybe it will do the same for you.
*pun very much intended