When I think about witches in history and historical fiction, I think, of course, of the Salem witch trials, and of women of that era in both Europe and the New World accused of witchcraft — often for nothing more sinister than living alone, or having a working knowledge of herbal medicine. Ami McKay’s new novel takes us into witches in a different world — 1890s New York City, where women’s ancient knowledge intersects with the fascination for spiritualism in late 19th-century New York to produce a trio of memorable women, the titular witches of New York.
Adelaide is a medium who passes on messages from the dead; she shares a storefront and living quarters with Eleanor, who practices traditional “witch” knowledge handed down from her mother. Into their lives, in response to a newspaper ad, comes young Beatrice, new to the city and looking for adventure, who turns out to have the abilit to see dead people. Together the three women face prejudice and misunderstanding and try to forge out a tiny space for witches in a rapidly modernizing world.
I categorized this book both as historical fiction but also as fantasy, since it has elements that I would describe as a sort of urban fantasy — that is, the “witchcraft” elements of the story are real within the world of the story, so inexplicable and mysterious things do occur, and are not explained away rationally. This requires the reader to suspend disbelief, entering into the world of the story’s characters and believing what they believe.
All three women are engaging, well-drawn characters (Adelaide has been previously introduced to us under another name, Moth, as a young girl in McKay’s novel The Virgin Cure). They are survivors, strong and indomitable in world that wants to force women into a more compliant mold. Characters and setting are the strengths of this story — the plot, I thought, stumbled in a few places, perhaps because there are many characters in addition to the three witches and many plot threads, some of which seemed to me to be resolved a little too easily and others left dangling without any resolution at all. In spite of these dropped threads, the overall tapestry of this story was rich and enjoyable.