Several friends have been enjoying We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry, so I was already considering reading it when it showed up on the Tournament of Books shortlist. Its presence on the list made it a must read. And it is fun, although I maybe loved it a little less than others have.
Set at the beginning of the 1989-90 school year, the novel follows the triumphant season of a girls’ field hockey team at a Danvers, Massachusetts, high school. The secret to their success? Witchcraft. Specifically in the form of a spell cast in a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover.
Using first person plural point of view, the team tells how they won game after game, making deals with Emilio to do more and more subversive things, from leaving sardines in the teachers lounge, to flashing a teacher, and so on, making bigger and bolder choices as the season goes on. Each chapter focuses on a different team member, so we learn their histories and motivations. This is one of the book’s biggest strengths. Each team member is her own person, with her own problems and reasons for behaving as she does. And it’s never quite clear what power, if any Emilio, really has.
As it happens, I graduated the same year as these characters, which made the book’s period setting both extra amusing and sometimes extra distracting. With every pop cultural reference, I found myself thinking, “Wait, was this something I was into my senior year?” Early on, a lot of the references seemed more like they came from early high school or even middle school. I think it was sort of all the 80s mashed together, rather than 1989-specific. And even if it was all correct, the mental calculation kept pulling me out of the story. Totally my own fault, but a real thing that happened.
It did get me thinking about why the 80s setting was relevant, aside from the nostalgia factor. A lot of it had to do with attitudes about sex and sexuality. The 80s was a time of gender bending and female empowerment but also still pretty regressive. I don’t think the characters’ arcs would have been at all the same if the book were set much earlier or much later. There are, of course, always going to be ways for teenagers to rebel, so an author choosing to tell such a story could set it at any time, but these particular acts of rebellion, among both teenagers and adults, wouldn’t work quite so well at a different time. As it is, the attitudes among the students all felt about right to me.