In her latest novel, Season of the Witch, Mariah Fredericks puts a mirror up to the face of both the bullies and the bullied. When the new school year starts, Toni (short for Antonia) has to deal with strained relationships both at home and at school. After a marital shake-up, her father and mother are both pretending everything is fine, even though Toni knows better. Meanwhile, over the summer, Toni briefly dated a classmate named Oliver, who had broken up with his girlfriend Chloe. Now he's back with Chloe, who, assisted by her buddies Zeena and Isabelle, is out to make Toni's life a living nightmare. Even though Toni is not pursuing Oliver anymore, the other girls have been communicating their hate for her through threatening phone calls and text messages. She knows it will only get worse when she has to see them in person every day at school - and it does.
Toni's best friend, Ella, is usually a shining light who sticks by her side, no matter what. As Toni says in the first-person narration, Ella "bounces chaotically through life." (Even her hair is bouncy.) She goes on: "[Ella]'s like a hyper puppy: cute, but you worry someone will kick her." I really liked Ella, for her positive energy, her good spirit, and more. She's a chatterbox and a sweetheart, usually smiling, sometimes snacking. Over the summer, Ella's parents sent her away to The New York Health Center (aka fat camp), where she lost six pounds but retained her happy spirit. While she was gone, her eight-year-old autistic cousin, Eamonn, had a seizure and drowned in the tub while his older sister, Cassie, was home.
Though Cassie is the same age as Ella, she's never really interacted with Toni. She tends to keep her distance from the other kids at school. Now she slowly begins to bond with Toni - when Ella's not around. Cassie, who now wants to be called Cassandra, encourages Toni to stand up to her bullies. Knowing Toni feels powerless, Cassandra shows her a way to become empowered. Though initially hesitant, Toni agrees to Cassandra's plans after a physical altercation with the cruel crew leaves her scarred and scared. But when their actions have monumental consequences, the sweet taste of revenge sours, and Toni is more scared than she's ever been.
The title of this book is Season of the Witch, so you may expect this book to be The Craft. (Decent movie, am I right?) One of the coolest things about this book is the fact that it will appeal to people who like witchy storylines as well as those who don't. The setting is one hundred percent modern day and surprisingly realistic -- I say "surprisingly" not because I ever had doubt in Fredericks' writing ability - I think she's great, but more on that later -- but because of the Library of Congress summary: "A girl who is bullied experiments with witchcraft in order to get revenge on her attackers." And while that is true, that simple sentence coupled with the title might bring to mind, well, scenes from The Craft. However, in this book, no one flies. No one changes her hair color with a shake of the head. There are no glamours. There is blood, yes. But without any special effects and superpowers, Fredericks has masterfully created a story charged with pain and choices and consequences. When Cassie brings spells into play, you could argue either way, that they "worked" or that it was simply the natural order of things. Instead of being about magic, this book is about power: who has it, who doesn't, and what happens when or if is reclaimed or released.
The characters are memorable. Toni, Cassie, Ella, Chloe, Isabelle, Oliver - each of them has a distinct personality and way of being, the way they react to things and the way others react to them. And while we may not know every little thing about Toni's parents, the unrest at home and the fact that the parents' summer strife slightly parallels Toni-Oliver-Chloe gives the story an added depth. (One summer flashback scene in particular shows a very raw Toni, and as she shouted at another character, her anger jumped off of the page.) The way Toni is treated by her classmates, from the girls who want to hear the gossip to the boys who taunt her with nasty innuendo - even if they don't lay a hand on her, and even if some of them never would, their words still hurt and shame her deeply.
I've never been good at holding my breath.
Like some of my favorite Deb Caletti protagonists, Toni did things which were only for herself - little rituals and routines she didn't share with anyone else, things that gave her comfort. I love moments like that, which give you insight into a character's true self.
My favorite Cassandra moment is something I won't quote here, so that you, gentle reader, remain unspoiled until you, too, have read this book. I will simply say that though it may not be the most "important" line she speaks, it is one of the most honest, and it resonated with me.
I hope that people who read this novel and see something of themselves in Toni, or Cassandra, or Ella, or Chloe, any of these girls who are a mix of spice and sorrow - I hope you find a way to reclaim your power without hurting anyone else, least of all yourself. I hope you find the strength to heal, and to help others.
I want to make this book into a film. I'm a screenwriter and a director as well as an actress, and on all three of those levels, I see true potential in this story. It would be awesome to bring it to life.
Also, I would like to ask Mariah Fredericks if she is a fan of Rosalind Russell, because I picked up two somewhat subtle references to her films/her roles, which I appreciated.