In our VenCo book review, we explore what a coven is like from a decolonized perspective.
A friend recently asked me how I would define patriarchy, and at the time, I struggled to answer. The word patriarchy evokes a society where men are in charge—lineages, wealth, government all orbit around men. While that is certainly part of the system of oppression we are referring to when we use the word patriarchy in the feminist lexicon, it is not the whole picture. I had trouble defining patriarchy, but Cherie Dimaline offers an interesting definition in her new novel, VenCo, which comes from a distinctly decolonized perspective. Many of us know the story of Kronos, king of the Titans in Greek mythology, who was so afraid of being overthrown that he swallowed his children to keep his power. Zeus eventually kills his father despite the Titan’s best efforts, and all throughout mythology, Zeus is wary of succumbing to the same fate. These figures, who were written by and represent men, were convinced they could achieve immortality alone, that individual excellence and exceptionalism is the ultimate goal. This is patriarchy. What Cherie Dimaline offers us in her novel VenCo is community as a tool to uproot interconnected systems of oppression.
“Ironic that, since the only way to truly be immortal is to have descendants. And to be the one who devours them, when one craves immortality above all else?”
VenCo is a word scramble of coven, and that tells you almost everything you need to know about the book before diving in. While this novel does have a main character, Lucky, it also centers around community, and so there is a cast of women who shoulder the story together. We follow a group of seven women as they come together to find themselves and one another, preparing to change the world. The history of witches is deeply feminist and subversive, and this book leans into that, as it sets up home base in Salem and reaches out to places like New Orleans and Indigenous land in Canada.
I want to take a moment out of my VenCo book review to commend the sheer inclusivity of the story. Within the first few pages, we are told of the power of femmes. For those who are unfamiliar with the word, it’s popular in the queer community and describes a person aligned with femininity. Often this is a woman, but not always. This term alludes to an understanding of womanhood as an umbrella that many people can stand under, but not everyone has to have the same cis relationship with it. People who are or have been perceived as women, people who have experienced misogyny, share the power of being femmes, and so it is not exclusive to cis women who feel their relationship with their gender is uncomplicated. As we follow the story of this new North American coven, we come across magical femmes who use Catholic prayers, old wives tales, and pagan rituals in turn, each paying homage to their home and culture, because community is where they draw their power. The coven itself is made up of a Sapphic couple, an Indigenous woman coming into leadership and a Black woman recently escaping her father’s pastoral influence; a white Trans girl who was kicked out of her Christian home; a white punk who goes by Morticia and desperately wants to avoid monotony and middle age; a Creole woman who finds herself a single mom after surviving abuse; a mixed Indigenous woman reconnecting with her heritage; and a seventh member whose identity I won’t spoil. These women range in body type, hair style and texture, culture, and identity, and their community is better for it.
VenCo is a deeply subversive story, and I think the most obvious example of this is how the story defines guilt. When we think of Salem and the tragedy of the witch trials in 1692, we are horrified that innocent women were killed for a crime they did not commit. VenCo flips this narrative on its head, and rather than the tragedy being that innocent women suffered punishment for a crime, the tragedy is that their witchiness was ever criminalized at all. These days, we know what being a witch really meant—describing femmes who were queer, too loud, too subversive, or too provocative in the way they presented themselves. It was a stand-in for any number of identities that the patriarchy found uncomfortable, so rather than having innocent women, VenCo insists their guilt should never have been a crime in the first place.
Overall, I found this book delightful. Too often witch aesthetics are co-opted by cis white women with bad protest signs—you’ve seen the “we are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn” protest signs on Instagram—but this book offers a more nuanced take. In my VenCo book review, I want to highlight what I see as the book’s greatest strength, which is its allowance of the characters to be whole people. This is not a story of two-dimensional martyrs where the author spends their pages proving they didn’t deserve what happens to them. Instead, it’s an unapologetic feminist narrative that allows its protagonists the full spectrum of human emotions and experiences. If you are looking for a story of witches that holds both magic and humanity, you will not be disappointed with what VenCo offers.
This book leans into optimism, telling us the problems of colonization can be solved by community, something that is within all of our reach, but it doesn’t pretend this will be easy. The story is full of twists and turns, the characters often have a hard time believing themselves, and there is an undercurrent of fear around what would happen if they fail. Each of the women we follow are survivors in their own right, like femmes walking around the planet today, and the idea of leaving their chosen family is not something they can tolerate. Despite the fear, our coven pulls one another closer, and bands together on their mission.
‘VenCo’ published on February 7, 2023
Buy VenCo by Cherie Dimaline from Harper Collins, Bookshop.org, Book Depository, or Amazon. You can also add it to your Goodreads list.
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