White Magic is the weirdest book I have ever read. I knew it would be weird before I started it; the reviews I read were so mixed, and none of their writers seemed to know how to describe it, either. Before starting the book, I wrote, “. . . there’s definitely something to be said for just jumping into a book that people have loved to an extent that it was indescribable.”
If you were hoping that my review would be the one that describes White Magic perfectly, it’s not. I don’t think it can be done. This book uses the title of “collection of essays” to rid itself of guilt of being totally meandering and sort of trying to tell a story through disjointed anecdotes, but not worrying about whether it is telling a story because I think it is just Elissa Washuta’s way of writing to cope with trauma and I just happened to wander into her private thoughts. That run-on sentence might give you an idea of Washuta’s writing style.
Last week, when I wrote How to Write a Nonfiction Book Review, I said that a good review should answer three questions. I’d be totally remiss to write a book review the week directly following that and not take my own advice, so I’ll try to do so.
Does White Magic accomplish its goal?
I think this book gets a pass on this—or maybe a slap on the wrist—because it really does not seem to have a goal. It’s definitely not trying to persuade or inform, at least not overtly. White Magic is probably closest to being a memoir, so it feels safe to say that Washuta’s goal is to make sense of her experiences and her feelings about the world in a way that is wholly her own. She’s not really trying to write according to our cultural standards of what writing should be, which I admire.
Washuta is reckoning with the trauma she has personally endured at the hands of men and with the collective trauma that Native people have endured at the hands of even more men. This made it a very emotionally heavy read.
Did I like it?
This is harder for me to answer. I actually gave the book two stars on Goodreads and I am leaning towards saying no, I didn’t like it. While the writing was very raw, it was also extremely chaotic, disturbingly explicit at times, and not personally relatable. There were a lot of pop culture references, and I was familiar with none of them.
While I wouldn’t want to, I couldn’t relate to any of Washuta’s trauma which made it hard for me to understand. She is also very into astrology, tarot, magic, and witchcraft, and we all know that these are among my least favorite things. Finally, a memoir, like any first-person narrative, forces you to see the world through the eyes of the narrator. I feel like Washuta and I have nothing at all in common, so I had a very hard time overall trying to adopt her perspective.
Does White Magic speak to its target audience?
Similarly to how it doesn’t have a specific goal, White Magic doesn’t seem to have an audience in mind. I think that if you would like anything I listed that I didn’t like, then this book might be for you. Actually, I think this is a great example of a book in which readers’ opinions of it will vary greatly from person to person. I found the variety between different reviews very amusing. (Even if you haven’t read the book, I think that going through its Goodreads reviews is very entertaining.)
The first review I ever read of it (and what immediately convinced me to read it) was this one at What’s Nonfiction, which ends saying:
From the synopsis I wasn’t totally sure, to be honest – it did sound a bit all over the place and magic and woo are not my thing. Yet here I am, completely changed by this book. The best piece of writing I’ve read in a long while. It felt as cathartic to read as it must have been to write.
Contrast this with a Goodreads review that I read when starting the book. It’s poetic, it’s witty, and I think I enjoyed it more than the book itself.
I thought this book was about a woman finding her power through witchcraft, but it ended up being about some dude named Carl. Skip this, unless you really enjoy reading about lame dudes.
So there you have it. White Magic is either the best piece of writing you’ve read or it is a book about lame dudes. I honestly think I lean towards the latter review. Notably, this might also be due to the fact that I was lucky enough to meet my soulmate when I was 17 and that I have never had to deal with all of Tinder’s “lame dudes.” Also, I’d like to point out that “lame dudes” would be more accurate if perhaps the reviewer called them “careless and unreliable losers” at best and “physically and emotionally abusive rapists” at worst. Girl Defined would call them “Mr. Struggle.”
Writing about paint drying
Possibly my favorite section of the book was the essay “Centerless Universe” where Washuta recounts the summer of 2016 as the writer-in-residence for the Fremont Bridge in Seattle. I know this doesn’t sound revolutionary, but it was actually beautiful and moving.
If you’ve watched Gilmore Girls, Washuta’s experience reminds me of the episode where Rory is on her high school newspaper, and out of spite, her nemesis assigns her to write an article covering the paving of the parking lot. Rightfully enraged, Rory promises,
And no matter how many crappy, stupid, useless assignments you throw at me, I’m not going to quit and I’m not going to back down. . . . if you’ll excuse me, I have some reading to do on the origins of concrete.
When Rory turns in the article, the teacher at the newspaper praises her:
I mean, when you’ve got a reporter who can take an incredibly mundane and seemingly unimportant subject like the re-paving of the faculty parking lot and turn it into a bittersweet piece on how everybody and everything eventually becomes obsolete, then you’ve really got something. Miss Gilmore, I was touched.
Washuta’s inspiration to do an in-depth story about the history of a bridge built over Duwamish land by white settlers follows a similar trajectory.
I wasn’t going to apply. I had nothing to say about a bridge. I felt that bridges were fine. I liked walking over the one between the university and Madison Park, but there’s no narrative tension in liking. A bridge never did anything to me.
I needed the money, though—ten thousand dollars for a few months’ work. My salary at my half-time job was twenty-five thousand, I was living in an expensive city, and money was running out. I realized I had something to say about a bridge.
Elissa Washuta, White Magic, p. 205
While I haven’t read the actual piece she wrote for the residency, Washuta described it as an investigation of how
the non-Native settlement of the shores of Lake Washington drove away a’yahos, a shape-shifting serpent spirit that lived in the lake and in the sky above it. A’yahos caused landslides and was feared and avoided by the Duwamish people, and though it was known to be malevolent, it was a respected source of personal spirit power. I am interested in the role of the creation of the ship canal and the changes it brought to the lake in driving a’yahos away.
Elissa Washuta, White Magic, p. 205
Her residency was actually covered in an interview if you’re interested in seeing more!
Arguably better than Rory’s fictional piece about the origins of concrete, Washuta’s chapter describes the details—from a Native, though not Duwamish perspective—of just how horrific it must have been for the Duwamish people to have their land effectively destroyed (in the name of “progress”) after a thousand-year-long relationship with it. The central point of her essay, which causes her great distress is: where is a’yahos now?
White Magic is definitely unique and interesting. It’s been described as haunting, and I will grant it that. I agree with the reviewers who say that it’s like nothing they’ve ever read before. I appreciated seeing the world through Washuta’s eyes as a Cowlitz woman, but the streams of consciousness, the astrology, and the long time-bending chapter recounting Washuta’s tumultuous relationship with Lame Dude Carl were insufferable. I’m glad I finally see what all the fuss was about, but I just wish I had been able to enjoy it as much as others had.