Review of the Novel “Witch of Hebron” by James Howard Kunstler

The Witch of Hebron cover imageThis book is an extremely fast-paced, plot-driven sequel to Kunstler’s “World Made by Hand” that offers more insight into what the author thinks (or hopes) will happen after the collapse of industrial civilization in America. I attended a book signing by the author for this book, where he proclaimed that the story was about the “re-enchantment” of the world after the humm and distraction of modern technology vanishes. The re-enchantment takes on a religious tone, as an intentional community of young Christian believers settles into Union Grove, working industriously to set up an economy of craft and agriculture there. The leader of the clan, a man named Brother Jobe, is a dichotomy of good and evil. One moment he’s quoting scripture or offering haven to a woman in despair, the next minute he’s resentful and wishing her dead. Brother Jobe reflects the true nature of Nature and Man in this way: holding all possibilities at once, neither all good nor all evil, neither consistently dangerous or benign.

The characters in the book in fact all display the capability of both good and evil deeds: the child that performs a vengeful and destructive act later redeems himself by saving a life. The bandit who seems to rescue the protagonist from an injustice later murders in cold blood. The wife who has been unfaithful for years becomes the repentant and loved wife. Nature, too, holds both a place of benevolence and violence, of mystery and monotony. The re-enchantment of the world means that anything can happen, that tragedy can become salvation and salvation can bring death.

There are a few things that disturbed me about Kunstler’s vision of post-collapse America. As Carolyn Baker wrote in her review, he seems to think that women will revert back to 18th century roles in the future. Every female character in the book is very one-dimensional: a wife who cooks and cleans, a goddess, a witch, a nun, a prostitute. The most interesting female character (the witch of Hebron) has nothing interesting to say. Her short responses and comments seem almost naive and childish. The way the author describes her garments and hair is more memorable than what he has her say. Either this is Kunstler’s subconscious projection about women, or he just doesn’t know women. Women in this book don’t make decisions for others, don’t have creative ideas, don’t tell men what to do. They are simply there to serve the male protagonists in a culinary, medical or sexual capacity.

The other disturbing thing was Kunstler’s sexualization of children. This, in fact, disturbed me more than the sexism. He writes about 12-year olds having sexual contact with each other as if it’s a good, wholesome thing. He interjects pedophilia here and there, some of it shocking and horrible and some of it almost casual. Does Kunstler have children? I don’t think so. Not only does he not understand women, he doesn’t seem to understand children or what they’re like at age 12, either. (I do.)

Overall, I enjoyed World Made by Hand much more than the Witch of Hebron. It was a richer, better crafted novel with more developed characters. There are times in Witch that Kunstler seems impatient, almost bored with his own writing, because the chapters are so short and punchy the story gets hurled along sometimes on just dialogue. Is this a literary vehicle, a technique done on purpose for a reason? Is he trying to say that things are getting simpler, and simpler, and simpler? I don’t know. Maybe. All I know is that I NOTICED it, and as any good reader worth her salt would say, if you notice the technique, it ain’t all that good.