Every three hundred years or so, our kind gets loosed upon an unsuspecting world. And this time around, the history books would know us as the 1989 Danvers High School Women’s Varsity Field Hockey Team. Be. Aggressive. B-E aggressive. (p. 7)
We Ride Upon Sticks, Quan Barry's second novel, tells the story of the members of a 1989 high school girls' field hockey team who, in order to break a vicious losing streak and make it to the state championship, sign their names in the devil's book—which is actually a school composition notebook bearing the visage of then-teen-heartthrob Emilio Estevez. There. I've either sold you on the book or sent you screaming for the hills—and either way, it will probably be the right reaction for you. For (mostly) better and (a little bit) worse, that one-sentence description captures Ride's emphasis and effect quite perfectly. It is funny, irreverent, unabashedly girl-powery, and a little bit hemmed in by the outrageousness of its central conceit.
Set in Danvers, Massachusets (formerly known as Salem Village, and the site of many of the events now more popularly associated with the modern city of Salem), We Ride Upon Sticks joins its characters, the rising seniors known as the Danvers Falcons, as they're getting their asses handed to them at summer field hockey camp. Their previous season ended with a pathetic eight losses and two wins. With their last year in high school approaching and their last chance at athletic glory slipping out of their reach, the Falcons are willing to consider extreme measures.
Psychologically, a goalie can only take so much, even a French Canadian one from a family of Catholic males. After she got scored on eight or nine times, Mel stormed back to her dorm room and took matters into her own hands. She got to work, ripping out the used pages in the notebook she’d gotten for her birthday, the one with the picture of Emilio Estevez printed on the cover, her parents secretly hoping Emilio’s boy-next-door appeal might guide their tomboy daughter gently into the right port, so to speak. Years later she would try to explain why she did it by saying that sometimes the Lord is busy and He needs us to be self-starters, show a little moxie. (p. 6)
One by one, the Falcons sign their name in the notebook, which they come to perceive as a sentient force, known as The Darkness or, more commonly, Emilio. They tie a strip of athletic sock on their bicep and swear to "[follow] any urges you might get all the way to the end no matter what" (p. 15). And just like that, the team's fortunes turn around: matches that should have been massacres become complete blow-outs; the Falcons even enjoy an unprecedented win against the college players who act as the camp's instructors. But camp is merely the preamble. The new school year, and with it the new field hockey season, are just around the corner.
As well as winning on the field, the Falcons change in all the ways that women of their type are alleged to. They wreak vengeance on their enemies, dance naked in the moonlight, develop the devil's mark (a hickey on goalie Mel Boucher's neck persists throughout the season and is named Le Splotch by the rest of the team), and adopt animal familiars (well, mostly inanimate ones, as in the case of left forward Jen Fiorenza—whose imposing hairstyle, dubbed The Claw, develops a personality and, eventually, powers of its own). In general, the team simply tries to be their best and truest selves. This includes committing acts of mischief and mayhem which, as left halfback and former goodie-two-shoes Julie Kaling insists, are the only way to recharge Emilio and continue the Falcons' winning streak.
Barry appears to have drawn on her own history for the novel's plot and character arcs. She grew up in Danvers and played field hockey on the local high school's 1989 team (in her afterword, she claims that the real '89 Falcons required no occult intervention to kick ass; hmmm). Some of her biographical details crop up in her characters' lives. Like Julie Kaling, she was born in Saigon and adopted by American parents. Like several girls on the team, she was one of only a small number of brown girls in a mostly-white school. One of the Falcons even grows up to become a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Barry teaches.
But of course, in telling a story about young girls and witchcraft, Barry is also plugging into a rich and multifaceted storytelling tradition. The real historical events of the 1692 Salem witch trials have been depicted in fiction many times. The most famous of the bunch, Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible, even makes an appearance in Ride as the slightly on-the-nose choice of the Danvers High School theater department, which sweeper Sue Yoon, urged on by Emilio, joins in order to prove to her Korean immigrant parents that theater is a viable career path for a first-generation American. Stories about high school girls working out their teen drama through dark magic have been all the vogue since at least The Craft (1996); school as a setting for overheated, secretive friend circles that spill over into occult rituals is a trope that has shown up repeatedly in literature, from Donna Tartt's The Secret History (1992) to Mona Awad's Bunny (2019). Even using witchcraft to excel at physical pursuits isn't a new idea, as seen in the magically-charged ballet company that features in both versions of Suspiria (1977, 2018).
Barry, however, might be the first whose teenage witches call on the darkness to aid them in sports, and that is a distinction that inflects both her novel and characters. There's a certain pragmatism, a down-to-earth quality that shines through both, even as Emilio's influence makes itself increasingly known. Witch stories—and, indeed, stories about teen girl friend groups—tend towards intensity and simmering sexual awakening, but Ride is run through with a more prosaic awareness of the teenage condition—a state of being at once clueless child and someone far too determined to be worldly to ever admit to the former. The real magic, it insists, is speaking honestly about the bewildering complexity of the world the Falcons are about to enter.
Then we felt something shift, a force slowly filling the bus, like water in a bathtub. All of us, even those girls without parts of a sock tied around their arms, could sense it. Maybe Emilio was at work. Maybe it was Carrie’s lack of guile. Maybe it was simply being in what the woke kids of today call a safe space. It was as if we had all entered a ring of truth, Wonder Woman’s golden lasso compelling us to be honest. That afternoon on the way to Lexington there would be no BS. There would be no it-was-the-single-greatest-most-romantic-moment-of-my-life crap. Time was running out, adultdom just around the corner. We needed real honest-to-god talk, not Hollywood propaganda, not tonight-on-a-very-special-episode-of agitprop. One by one, sex was coming for us, sex and death and taxes. We wanted to make sure it didn’t catch us unaware. (p. 262)
What Ride is about, then, is its heroines' haphazard progress towards adulthood, a progress which it regards with a refreshingly unsentimental gaze. The book's chapters are arranged and titled according to the team's game calendar, with each one centering on a different Falcon. Barry, who began her literary career as a poet, has a remarkably assured authorial voice, diving effortlessly from the team group-mind’s idea of itself, told in the plural first person, to each girl's personal experiences, which often include feelings and struggles that the other teammates can't imagine. Center AJ Johnson, for example, is exhausted by being the only Black girl in school, sitting in AP classes where white students use Huck Finn as an excuse to throw around the n-word, but equally worried that other Black people see her as an Oreo, and simultaneously treated as a unique threat by mostly-white opposing teams. Right centerback Becca Bjelica, on the other hand, developed early and has been taken for "a nymphomaniac and utterly depraved at heart" ever since. "The standard male thought on such matters seemed to be, why would a girl grow a rack like that if she didn’t want to be ogled?" (p. 127). Shamefacedly, the team admits that they, too, have ascribed sexual intention to Becca's breasts.
Indeed, much of the Falcons' way of thinking runs afoul of "correct" attitudes towards sexuality and sexual ethics, and Barry is both forgiving of fault and aware that things have gotten better (or perhaps simply more codified) with time. For instance, rich, suave right wing Cory Gillis is the team's object of envy for having a stalker, who sends her sinister gifts and threatening notes. A lot of the time, the issue is simply a lack of terms with which the Falcons can even put their desires and experiences into words. The lone boy on the team, left wing Cory Young, senses that he isn't destined for a typical male adulthood, but it takes until the very end of the novel to articulate what that means. And when right forward Abby Putnam, the Falcons' unflappable, self-possessed captain, admits that she let her boyfriend have sex with her because he kept insisting, the group-mind admits that they don't have the words for what that actually is.
This is the context in which we have to process Emilio's demands (or are they really his at all?): that the Falcons do bad things in order to stay in his good graces and keep winning. As in a lot of stories about witches (and even those just about women who are taken for witches), "bad" often seems to mean speaking your mind, going after the things you want, being yourself rather than what you're expected to be, and not caring what other people think about you. Some of the time, of course, bad just means bad—trashing a car, spreading a rumor, cheating on a test. But as right halfback and team brainiac Heather Houston points out, sometimes you have to break the rules, if only to keep from becoming the sort of person who lets rules define her.
What we were still learning: Emilio didn’t need mementos. He didn’t need shadow books and spells and juvenile delinquency. He just needed us to be our true and fully wondrous selves. (p. 292)
It is perhaps this life-affirming message, this refusal to fully condemn its characters (or, indeed, to have them do anything genuinely worthy of condemnation) that also contributes to a certain lack of urgency as Ride approaches its climax. For a novel that continually insists that the weirdness at its center has transformed its individual characters into a single whole, Ride struggles to bring its disparate stories together into something that is greater than its parts. Throughout the novel, there are dark hints of what is to come, intimations of sorrow when the team learns the full extent of what its members are going through, threats to expose the Falcons' secret, promises of a major tragic twist. And yet when these come to fruition, they can't help but fall a little flat. It's not 1692 anymore, and after an entire novel that has refused to make a big deal out of things that are, objectively, not a big deal (and after so many hints that Emilio might just be a face on a notebook, that the whole thing might just be a crutch allowing the Falcons to do the things they always wanted to do), Barry can't (or perhaps won't) shift her mode into the hysterical or tragic.
Partly, this is the point. Whether or not the Falcons win the championship isn't actually important in the grand scheme of things (and, for all my complaints about her denouement, Barry finds the perfect way to resolve this question without making it the crux of her conclusion). What's important, as any cliché-spouting sports coach will tell you, is what winning (and the things they did in order to win) has made of them. Despite the book's laser-like focus on its teenage characters, We Ride Upon Sticks doesn’t really feel like a YA novel. Its emphasis is always on looking back through the decades, understanding and forgiving the people its characters once were, and praising them for decisions they made that, unwittingly, shaped the adults they became. The book's final chapter, which catches up to the Falcons in the present day, is titled "Danvers vs. Danvers," because the race (match?) is long—and in the end, it’s only with yourself. If it feels as if the team’s collective happy endings are a bit implausible in the aggregate, then maybe that's the real magic in which the book wants us to believe.