In 1989, a Danvers, Mass., high school field hockey team with a losing streak is about to start winning. The 11 senior varsity players — 10 girls and one boy — have signed their names in an Emilio Estevez notebook and sealed their bond with armbands cut from an old blue tube sock. Soon, it won’t just be field hockey games they’re mastering, but the various strategic moves required to maneuver their way out of adolescence and into adulthood.
Quan Barry’s “We Ride Upon Sticks” is an ambitious novel. Narrated in the collective “we,” the book takes on the task of crafting compelling characters out of 11 protagonists, and succeeds in spades. The side characters include various personified body parts, including Jen Fiorenza’s bangs (dubbed The Claw), a teratoma on Mel Boucher’s neck (The Splotch), and the chin of school newspaper reporter Nicky (The Chin). The presence of these sort-of-sentient corporeal entities is but one colorful pane in a surprising and ultimately delightful narrative mosaic that also involves telepathy, witchcraft, fires, dead rabbits, ’80s music, candy bars, “The Crucible,” Huck Finn, identity and the intense bonding that occurs on a team populated by late-adolescence women and femmes.
“We signed our names and we lived with it,” Barry writes about the team committing themselves to the pursuit of field hockey greatness. “The rest is history.”
The parallels between the Salem witch trials — including some herstory around Tituba, the enslaved woman who was the first to be accused of witchcraft by some white teenage girls in 1692 — and the 1989 team of not-quite witches are deftly drawn. The narration is playful, making the emotional crescendos even more satisfying. Humor is an abundant buffer to rage, confusion, sadness and the tricky waters of love. Barry is a skilled storyteller and sentence artist who embraces irreverence where irreverence is due. At the start of the season, the team “pushed through the pain because pain was the only meal on the menu.”
Commentary on race, class, gender and sexuality is couched in moments like this, and in sentences designed to make the reader cringe: “The race of these [nonwhite] kids didn’t matter. For all intents and purposes, they were seen as being white just like the rest of us.” And, “If being a raging homophobe in public and then slobbering all over another boy in private was the best you could do, it was the best you could do, original or not.” The jarring nature of these sentiments serve as their own societal call-out; they seem to ask, is this the best we can do? The implied answer, of course, is absolutely not.
“Sticks” only falters in some of its use of gender stereotypes. The girlish and/or gay boys are destined for a life of drag or to realize they are trans; the girls have slightly more range in their allowable identities. However, the book treats all of its characters with a love so tender that even with these stereotypes, it’s impossible not to love them, too. The bond between the Danvers High teammates is at the giant heart of this novel. “Eleven sticks bundled together can withstand anything,” Barry writes. “One stick left out in the cold all on its own can’t even withstand itself.” As the story wind-sprints toward its deeply gratifying ending, one can’t help but grab a stick and hold on.
Sarah Neilson has written for Electric Literature, LARB, LitHub, BuzzFeed, the Seattle Times and elsewhere. On Twitter @sarahmariewrote.
We Ride Upon Sticks
By: Quan Barry.
Publisher: Pantheon, 384 pages, $26.95.