- - Tuesday, March 10, 2020

In “We Ride Upon Sticks,” Quan Barry writes of the Danvers High School 1989-90 field hockey team, which seriously sucks until all of a sudden it doesn’t. 

Its members — 10 girls and one boy — develop a winning strategy that takes them all the way to the Massachusetts state final. Goalie Mel Boucher is fed up of getting scored on so she has her teammates sign up to the dark side in her Emilio Estevez notebook, tying a strip torn from an old blue athletic sock on each of their arms as earnest of their willingness to do what it takes some to enlist alternate powers on their side.

“Years later she would explain why she did it by saying sometimes the Lord is busy and he needs us to be self-starters, show a little moxie.”   

For kids living in Danvers, this is not such a stretch. Their little town lies on Boston’s North Shore. Before its residents switched its name to Danvers in 1752, it was called Salem Village, which became infamous for the 1692 witch hunt that led to the execution of 20 residents. In other words, the Salem witches did not come from the nearby town of Salem, but from Danvers. And Abby Putnam, the field hockey team’s right forward, descends from one of the girls who helped fuel the persecution by accusing village elders of tormenting them. 

Not that Abby spurs her team to their demonic strategy. Nor do her teammates feel oppressed by the older generation — at least, not more so than teenagers. True, Julie Kaling is hamstrung by religious parents who insist she wears ankle-length dresses, and Heather Houston’s mom allows no sugar whatsoever, so Heather is seriously put out when she finds candy wrappers in her car.  

Despite such issues, the team’s motivation is the urge to win their games so as well as plotting and doing magic, they train like crazy. In the process they find themselves. Julie sews herself a marvelous outfit for the prom. Heather realizes what’s happening in her mother’s car. Boy Cory learns about his sexuality. Sue Yoon blooms when she plays Tituba in Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible.”

Arthur Miller and Quan Barry are not the only writers to be inspired by the Salem witches. Salem-born Nathanial Hawthorne descended from one of the judges, and his reflections of the power of social and religious ideology underpin his fiction. John Updike, who lived near Danvers, also wrote a witchy novel, “The Witches of Eastwick,” in which he noted (and the Danvers field hockey team discovers) “Wickedness is like food; once you got started it was hard to stop.” Indeed, the team can’t stop because they are teenagers marching forward into their adult selves.

Quan Barry writes of them lovingly, tracing their coming of age with sardonic wit and generous indulgence. She herself never laughs at their childish side — dark powers forsooth! — but she lets her readers be amused. 

Anyone who graduated high school in 1990 or thereabouts will hoot as she raises memories of hairstyles, food obsessions, family cars, sit-coms, cigarettes, trips to the mall and other freaks of that time. And high school graduates of any era will recognize her accounts of sexual queries and investigations. By swinging her focus from the team to individual members, she shows them all trying to fit in despite the differences in their backgrounds — some caucasian, several not, one super-smart, another not, one with a rich stepdad, another with no dad at all.

She is less successful at integrating the history of the Salem witches into the novel, even though she notes details of the accusations and the trial. But unlike 17th-century Danvers, the town is no longer riddled with envy and spite, not in thrall to malevolent judges, so the parallels to kids dabbling in magic are fairly thin.  

To get to the state finals, the Danvers team cut swathes through the teams of neighboring towns. At the same time, they are preparing for the prom, thinking of college essays, hoping to catch admirers’ eyes, fending off the intrusions of the school newspaper’s reporter, and tripping off to the mall or to the local reservoir to conjure help in forthcoming games. 

This fun tale is structured around the many games and the 11 team members, each of whom gets a turn in the limelight, so repetition is inevitable.  The energy and humor of the novel generally carry readers through the way a really good joke keeps earning laughs. But all good things come to end, and readers may feel they have “got it” before Quan Barry’s satisfying conclusion. 

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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By Quan Barry

Pantheon Books, $26.95, 384 pages

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