The Girls on the Hockey Team Are Witches
In "We Ride Upon Sticks," Quan Barry reimagines the Salem witch trials taking place in a high school in the '80s
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Until reading Quan Barry’s latest novel, We Ride Upon Sticks, I had no idea the 1692 Salem witch trials hadn’t actually taken place in Salem, Massachusetts. The hysteria emerged in the nearby town of what was then called Salem Village, and is now called Danvers. “Honestly, of all places on earth, the Town of Danvers should have seen us coming,” Barry writes. In We Ride Upon Sticks, Barry—a Danvers native—places us in 1989 amongst a coven fueled by Pat Benatar, peroxide, and dark deeds scrawled in an Emilio Estevez notebook. Her witches? The 1989 Danvers High School Women’s Varsity Field Hockey team.
When the novel begins, the team has suffered a lot of losses. Suddenly, in the summer of 1989, they start winning. Their goalie has taken matters into her own hands by pledging herself to the powers of darkness in an Emilio Estevez notebook, and one by one, she convinces her teammates to join her. The girls’ actions get steadily darker as they chronicle their misdeeds in the notebook simply referred to as “Emilio,” who “would become a record of our offerings, a shadow book documenting our efforts on behalf of the dark.” They keep winning—and the girls start thinking collectively. But despite their shared thoughts, the girls occasionally remain capable of keeping secrets from one another.
The excess of the decade wafts over the story like hairspray (“Ave the ’80s! The only thing bigger than our hair was our outfits”), although Barry doesn’t neglect the ways in which things were worse for women, queer people, and people of color (“What did our mothers call it? Bad sex. What would our daughters call it? Rape”). The girls’ individual coming-of-age stories weave in and out of their collective identity, through field hockey and ritual and ’80s aesthetics, everything escalating as the team fights through the season.
Currently a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Quan Barry was herself a member of the 1989 Danvers Field Hockey Team. She is the author of the novel She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, as well as four poetry collections, most recently Loose Strife. Over the phone, we talked about DIY witchcraft, self-advocacy, collective power, and which ’80s heartthrobs are still crushing it (hint: it’s Keanu).
Deirdre Coyle: We Ride Upon Sticks is written in first-person plural, the field hockey team’s collective “we.” To me, this point of view seems daunting, but it felt very natural and appropriate in the story. How did you decide on this point of view?
Quan Barry: Obviously there are a few examples of “we” plural voices in literature, probably the most famous one being Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. In that book, you get a group of boys who are watching this family of girls, and this group of boys tells the story.
I always knew that I wanted [We Ride Upon Sticks] to be a first-person plural voice, I just wasn’t sure whose voice it was going to be. When I first started writing it, I thought that maybe it was going to be the entire school watching this girls’ field hockey team, but that didn’t quite work. And then I thought that maybe it was gonna be the freshman team. Oftentimes with sports, you have a freshman team, a junior varsity team, and a varsity team. I remember being a freshman girl myself, and usually what happens is that the freshman girls are just, like, obsessed with the senior girls. They just seem so much older, like they’re adults, and they can drive. [The freshmen girls] sort of stalk them in various ways, and know all kinds of things about the senior girls. But when I tried doing that, it became very obvious very quickly that I couldn’t really explain why these freshman girls would have certain access to certain scenes or why they would know certain things. And then I realized, “Oh, it’s just the team itself. They’re the ones telling the story”—my joke being that there’s no “I” in “team.”
I also think that, finally, making it first-person plural adds a sort of witchy element to the book. Not only is it first-person plural, but there’s also some collective thinking that happens along the way, and first-person plural allowed me to have that sort of otherworldly element in the book as well.
DC: It’s very eerie in all the right moments. The girls write their pledges to “Darkness,” “Dearest Darkness,” rather than an explicit “devil” or other figure. What made you decide to keep this darkness broad and vague?
QB: I really see the witchcraft in the book as not a major element. In many ways, it’s more about the girls finding themselves, and their friendships, and discovering who they are. So I saw the witchcraft in general as being very DIY. They don’t have a particular program or way of going about it exactly; they’re discovering it as they go. So it made sense to me that it would be broader. Like I said, it’s just kind of a do-it-yourself thing. One of the things that I was really concerned with in the book is that even though they are dabbling in the darker arts, I wanted them to still be sympathetic. So even when they do create mayhem, you’re hopefully still rooting for them. Similarly, for me, keeping it broader allows the reader to maintain sympathy. I felt like if these girls actually were pledging themselves to a very specific, goat-headed devil, that it would be easy to lose sympathy with them. You could even make the argument that in the end, the darker power that they’re playing with is just the idea of the sun and the moon. The sun is sort of a bright object, and the moon is darker in certain ways. It’s a darkness that we all have, and which we do draw power from, you know? I was interested in exploring that side of things. Like okay, so, when you do look to your—I want to say to your “instincts,” even, as opposed to your “baser instincts”—but even just when you follow your gut, where will that take you? That’s one of the reasons why I decided not to have it be a more specific darkness.
DC: ’80s pop culture permeates the story, most notably in the Emilio Estevez notebook in which the girls sign their names and pledge themselves to “Darkness.” In an era with so many teen heartthrobs, how did you settle on Emilio to represent the Prince of Darkness?
QB: (Laughs) Well, a friend of mine who was on the field hockey team had two celebrity crushes back in the day that you would see in her locker every time she opened it. One of them was Emilio Estevez. The other one was a person whose name we didn’t know how to pronounce at the time, and that was “Keenu” Reeves, right? So, in thinking about quote-unquote “Keenu” Reeves—obviously, the guy is still crushing it, he’s still around career-wise, 35 years later—in some ways, it wouldn’t have made sense to have it be Keanu Reeves. But Emilio Estevez I feel like, in many ways, was emblematic of that time period. A lot of younger readers might not know who Judd Nelson is, for example, because he doesn’t have the same kind of presence? I think Emilio Estevez, because he comes from the Sheen-Estevez acting dynasty—even though he himself is not in the spotlight, obviously his father [Martin Sheen] is still known, his brother [Charlie Sheen] is still known—and I’ve always found something very innocuous, in the best way, about his look. I think he probably has played villains, maybe? But I couldn’t really name any. If you think about The Breakfast Club and the character he plays in it, which is this kind of good-hearted jock, it just seems like who he is, you know what I mean? There are a few other people who you could picture who maybe would have dark sides in them, and so, you know, making them the object of darkness might make sense. But with [Emilio Estevez], he just seems so cherubic that it’s kind of a disconnect. And from what I’ve heard, he’s a very, very, very nice guy. So there probably is a complete disconnect.
DC: Yeah, Judd Nelson would have been too easy.
QB: He already has a little bit of that darkness, so.
DC: You were on the 1989 Danvers field hockey team, right?
DC: You mentioned in another interview that the only character explicitly based on someone from that time was your coach.
QB: You know, when I first started writing the book, I basically had a draft of it done, and then my editor told me that my field hockey coach had passed away. I told my editor her name, and she did some searching, and she’s like, “Oh, she passed away a few months ago,” when I was writing this novel. This is not creative non-fiction, you know, it’s fiction, and for legal reasons, you can’t have characters based on actual people. But after she had passed away, that freed me up to have a character based on her. So I went back in and tweaked her in such a way that it made it even more obvious that it is Barb, Barb Damon, as an homage to her. She passed away in 2019, I think she was 82 years old. But yes, she is the only character in the book based on [a real person].
DC: That sounds like a very fitting tribute; she’s such a great character. So there are a lot of really amazing descriptions of the girls discovering their power, whether they’re “frenzied maenads” running off the field, or druid queens with blue-painted faces. Did any of that residual power come from your experiences playing field hockey?
QB: I think yes. I had been interested for a very long time in the idea of groups of girls and what happens when you get them together. Because I think it’s different when you get a group of girls together than when you get a group of boys together, you know? There are obviously a lot of sports books, movies based on boys’ team sports, you know, football, basketball, Hoop Dreams, Friday Night Lights, that kind of thing. But when it comes to girls in sports, it’s usually things like ice skating or gymnastics. You don’t really see that many girls’ sports movies or books. I mean, there was Bend It Like Beckham some years ago, but that was about it. And because I grew up in the town of Danvers, which used to be Salem Village, where the first incidents happened that led to the Salem witch hysteria, or the Salem witch trials, I was always interested in how that ended up happening. And I think that there was something about the collective, you know? It built on itself. A few girls said these things, and then it began to snowball, and become bigger and bigger. I was interested in how that kind of thing happens.
In thinking about playing field hockey myself, I could see how when you’re part of a team, in general—it’s not just about a field hockey team or anything—but when you put on a jersey, you take on an identity. And sometimes that’s for good, and sometimes that’s for bad, you know? So we see it with, for example, sports hooliganism, particularly in Europe. A lot of soccer fans put on jerseys and unfortunately do bad things, kind of in the names of their teams, right? There’s a kind of fanaticism that can come with sports. It’s also a sense of community, so there’s a plus side to it, and there’s also a dark side to it.
I remember being part of the team and there’s a way in which you feel positively connected to these people, and in certain ways it makes you feel braver. I’ve had the pleasure recently of going back to my hometown and giving a reading there, and a lot of my friends from the team came. There are literally some people who I have not seen since the day we graduated. But we talked about it, and we’re really excited about it—we have a little email chain going—hopefully this summer, depending on where the state of the world is, we’re hoping to get together and maybe actually hit some balls around. Like, it’d be fun, we should all get together, just mess around a bit. There’s something about it. I think we all just have really pleasant memories of playing together, being a team, and being friends. And you wouldn’t know we were all very different people, and we still are. We still have this common bond, even more than thirty years later.
DC: That’s so amazing, and very appropriate for the kind of story you’re telling in We Ride Upon Sticks. So the title of the book comes from the confession of Tituba, the first woman to be accused of witchcraft during the Salem trials. It’s so perfect for a story about a field hockey team.
QB: The original title of the book was actually “We ride upon sticks and are there presently.” That was her entire quote. She was maybe the third person to go before the trial.
DC: Oh, she wasn’t the first?
QB: Not the very first. And in thinking about it again, she was an enslaved woman. Even now, they’re not quite sure if she was—because there were Native American people who were enslaved—they weren’t sure if she was a Native American person who was enslaved, or if she was somebody who was originally of African origin. They’re not quite sure. But basically the thing I love about her, as the book discusses, is that she is the first person to confess to [witchcraft]. So she’s not the first person to go before a trial, but she’s the first person to actually confess. And in doing that, she kind of lays the blueprints for, “If you want to live, this is what you do: you confess, you make up a story, they’ll show mercy on you, and you won’t be killed,” basically. And so during her trial, as she’s confessing, they’re asking her for all these details. At one point, there’s an amazing question that they ask her. They’re like, “So how do you and the other witches, how do you guys travel to the coven that happens in Boston?” And she says, “We ride upon sticks and are there presently.” I have known that quote for a very long time, and I was hoping that the entire quote would be the title of the book, but it was not to be. (Laughs.)
DC: It’s great in both the short and long versions. There’s a line early in the book that felt relevant throughout the story: “When you don’t speak up, you get what you get.” It remains relevant as the characters decide what they want to talk about, and to whom, and as their inner voices enmesh into a collective voice. It’s also interesting in the context of the Salem witchcraft trials—when those women spoke and when they didn’t. You talk a lot about the differences, especially regarding gender and sexuality, between 1989 and 2019, when the frame story takes place. Were you thinking about how time has changed the ways in which people are more or less comfortable speaking up?
QB: I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it particularly through the lens of speaking up, but I was very much thinking about the ’80s and how now, we think, “Oh, the ’80s, they were a fun time; we like to dress up, and do our hair funny, and listen to the music.” But there was a lot of darkness happening in the ’80s as well, right? It was the time of the AIDS crisis, the Central Park Five. There was all kinds of stuff happening. I definitely wanted to show that aspect of it. Showing how time passes and how things that were acceptable in the ’80s are no longer acceptable, that’s definitely something that I was interested in thinking about.
There are scenes where [the girls are] talking about dating and consent, and how in 1989, what that looks like is obviously very different from what it looks like now. There are definitely moments in the book where people speak up about what they want, even as far as their sexuality is concerned—you know, Abby Putnam finally deciding that she’s had it with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, and wanted to advocate for herself, and what she does there. That kind of stuff. I was very much thinking about women and girls coming into power in various ways, and speaking their own truth.
I hadn’t particularly pulled out that line that you pulled out, but now that I think about it, I’m like, in many ways, yeah, it is kind of a mantra of the book: “When you don’t speak up, you get what you get.” In my life, I’m probably an over-communicator. Because I always feel like, if I told you what I needed, and then you couldn’t do that, then that’s on you. (Laughs.) I can’t expect people to be mind readers. That’s definitely something that I believe and that I try and live by. I can see that yes, in this book, these girls are very much learning to advocate for themselves and in doing so, then that puts it on the world. The world can’t meet their standards, right? Because they’ve said what they needed, and who they are.
DC: And they told Emilio.