You know that feeling when you see a book and the cover just calls to you, and then you read the description and you just know it’s a book you have to read? Maybe? Well, that’s what happened here for me. And that’s really all the intro I have.
“We danced all night. We danced the length of one song. We danced for just a moment. May we be so lucky as to still be dancing under the light of the harvest moon 300 years on.”
We Ride Upon Sticks is all about the 1989 Danvers High School varsity field hockey team. At pre-season camp, they’re pretty horrible, as they historically have been. But when one of their members gets just plain fed up, and turns to some dark forces to turn their season around, the team ends up channeling some vibes that are eerily similar to the (local) Salem, Massachusetts witch trials of popular historical lore. With this newfound power, the season drastically turns around, as do most of the members’ personal lives, and yet there is always that chance that things go a bit too far in these kinds of situations…
This was just a delightful reading experience. It’s basically the girl power satirical 80s homage to counter-match other pop-culture 80s specialties like Ready Player One (which, for the record, I also loved). Chock full of references and deprecating humor, the overall sarcastic tone made for a fully entertaining style from start to finish. I do love snark, especially when it’s well executed (as in, not forced) as it was here. I loved the way the story was told as well, from an omniscient first-person plural – it’s not something I normally see (in fact I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book written from that POV before) and it was spot on perfect for the team-based, possibly paranormal, plot. And on that note, let’s talk about the “possibly paranormal” aspect. I have read exactly one other book that walked the line of “this is all completely, actually, magical” and “it’s all totally explainable and the magic is all in their imaginations” line this well (or really, tried to walk that line at all): Once Upon a River. And though it overall wasn’t my favorite book, I loved that aspect of it. And I loved it here. It’s so awesome to be able to decide for yourself, as the reader, whether or not to believe…and to have either way you decide to read it be a legit and realistic (as it were) interpretation of the story. I went back and forth as I read and was really into that back and forth journey. And at the end of the story, the growing up and finding themselves, the owning who they are and who they want to be, the breaking out of their shells and pushing of boundaries, the coming-of-age, for each of the players is spectacular. It’s all the greatness and terribleness of teenagers, with an extra, original, twist.
One thing to note is that there are a lot of characters in this novel. When I say it’s about the whole team, I mean it. There are no “background” or filler members. Which could easily have gotten overwhelming and confusing. And perhaps the beginning was a little bit. But honestly, the way Barry handled it was really nicely done. Each chapter, as we went through the season, focused both on the next match-up (Danvers vs ________) and one of the team members. So, slowly and digestibly, throughout the novel, we learn about each girl (and one boy) on the team – their family, their heritage, their secret personal goals and feelings, and, of course, their contributions to the dark forces (starting with small innocent pranks and building to larger things like property destruction…and false accusations) that are helping them win out the season. I was surprised by the end how well I had gotten to know, and distinguish, the different traits and non-field-hockey interests of all the players. There was much deeper character development than I had anticipated. However, that did also mean that, sometimes, the pacing dragged a bit (so I was glad to have the audiobook to keep me moving through). In line with that, there was also a much deeper exploration of some more serious cultural aspects, past the big hair and exercise videos and popular actors of the 80s, and into a legit (but still within the sarcastic feel of the rest of the novel) addressing and condemnation of issues related to sexism, racism, stereotyping, and gender/sexuality. Barry demonstrates how, though of course we still have far to go, we have definitely made progress forwards since then. At times those messages do border on being a bit heavy-handed, but not too terribly.
One last note: I was not expecting the intellectual level of the parallels drawn between this particular field hockey team and the Salem witch trial girls and, really, extrapolated to close-knit groups of girls everywhere, in every time period. It was mirrored not only in the way the team closed ranks and supported each other, but even down to the “is this real or is it fake” framework of the entire novel. I loved seeing their interplay with each other, their dealings with their inner/personal demons and goals, the variety in their struggles to break out of expectations and how it all matched up with age-old questions of “How far would you go for what you want/what would you do if given that kind of choice and power?.” Anyways, it was all so smoothly interwoven in ways more (like the school play actually being The Crucible, lol) and less obvious and I was just really impressed by the depth and breadth of the connections throughout the novel.
Look, yes, there is a lot of field hockey in this book. And I have to be straight-up: I tried 2 days of field hockey in high school and hated it so much I cried and begged to quit. (Cross country and soccer right here, thank you very much.) BUT, honestly, even though it was so central, and was really talked about a lot, I felt like my personal hatred (and therefore any of your dislike for it/team sports in general) didn’t matter at all. I was so into the rest of it: the team feels, the sorta supernatural, the coming of age, the drama and snark, the 80s references – it was all worth it. There were some aspects that I felt could have been better, regarding the pacing and the density of some of the writing, but overall, this was such a completely unique and clever story, with wonderful characters and a great nostalgic and recognizable “growing up as girls” camaraderie that you just sometimes really crave revisiting.