That feeling when…every dystopian novel you have ever enjoyed, read and reread is suddenly happening in your own neighborhood! While my mind immediately turned to Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, Neville Shute’s On the Beach, Camus’s The Plague, the book I was actually reading when I felt the creeping onset of a thousand intimate apocalypses happening all around me, was a Norwegian novel about witch trials. Somehow, this intense, scary, lesbionic novel set in 17th Century Scandinavia captured the vibe – the tightening of the noose, the fear of other people, a deep concern over passionate men and their misplaced sense of justice, a horror of religion and some buried intuitive sense that what impacts all of us will cause the wealthy to hide, the poor to die, the white guys to explain and blame, the women to pick up new burdens of care, the young to flaunt their indifference, the old to tell us we’ve been here before, the ignorant to arm themselves and those who have been living apocalyptic lives all along to help, restore, share, feed, work, shelter, learn, teach, shine.
The novel I was reading, The Mercies (2020) by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, is based upon actual events in Vardo, an island in the Finnmark region of Norway in 1617. That year, on Christmas Eve, an almighty storm blew through the region and swallowed up fishing vessels out at sea along with all the town’s men. The women soldiered on and developed other kinds of social networks without their men until, Norwegian authorities, suspecting witchcraft among the women, sent a Scottish investigator to wreak his awful justice. Hargrave weaves a tight story around these bare facts and tells a story of women without men, patriarchal violence, indigenous wisdom and lesbian desire.
The novel centers upon Maren Magnusdatter (Magnusdatter = “daughter of Magnus” signaling the patriarchal order of naming here) a plucky local woman who loses her father, brother (Eric) and fiancé (Dag) in the great storm. She and her mother are left behind with Maren’s pregnant sister-in-law, Diinna, a Sami woman who finds herself very precariously situated among the Christian Norwegians. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the women, led by a trouser-wearing amazon called Kristen Sarensdatter, go fishing together, and try to manage the “men’s work” of providing food, managing the reindeer herds, tanning hides, negotiating trades with local villages and maintaining the buildings. It is not long before one of the women, a religious kook called Toril Knudsdatter, starts to sow apprehension about a village of women who seem to flourish without their men. When the Scottish witch-hunter arrives, with a new wife and a copy of King James’s volume on witches in hand, the mayhem begins.
The novel excels at timing, pacing, the weaving of stories through each other. Hargrove nails the arrogance of Christian men and the vengefulness of Christian women. While the men cannot countenance the possibility that women may survive without them, the women feel someone must be punished for not suffering as long and as hard as they do. And of course, the main targets for the witch hunters are the Sami people and those women who behave in ways that are far beyond the narrow scope prescribed for their gender. Maren strikes up a wary friendship first with her brother’s Sami widow, then she works alongside the manly Kristen, and finally she falls in love with the Scottish commissioner’s wife. Ursa, a sheltered young woman from Bergen. Ursa had been quickly married to the Scottish witch hunter, Absalom Cornet, when her father, looking for a political advantage, saw the opportunity to rid himself of a daughter and ally himself with a powerfully connected son. Husband and wife journey to the edges of the Norwegian kingdom by boat with Ursa enduring sea sickness by day and her husband’s mechanical sexual ministrations by night. Finally, they arrive in the far north, sodden and unhinged, and Ursa finds community among the women while the witch-hunter finds support among men in the region.
Reader, I will not spoil the delicious unraveling of this tightly wound story for you. Needless to say, however, while the novel is NOT about an epidemic per se, it is about an invisible menace that seems to come for the weak but that in the end swallows up everyone, and serves only to keep a deadly, exploitative and deeply unjust system in place. All the utopian potential of the competent women herding reindeer, fishing and staying afloat through mutual aid and neighborly collaborations, is wasted by fire and crucifixes. And while within a Christian cosmology, spirits possess weak women, and the devil lies in the details of female cooperation, Sami orientations to crisis and nature and queer erotic networks offer compelling alternatives to the Christian-patriarchal order. The townspeople begin to turn on one another, taking turns to tell of this woman with “poppets” in her house and that woman wearing trousers, and these women taking too much pleasure in a friendship, and even our heroine, Maren begins to doubt her Sami sister-in-law. When she questions Diina about her belief system, Diina answers: “I remember once when runes gave you comfort, when sailors came to my father to cast bones and tell them of their time left to come. They are a language, Maren. Just because you do not speak it doesn’t make it devilry.”
Of course, our time of crisis is not yet beset with witch hunts, but already, with talk of a “Chinese virus,” and with ICE officers exploiting conditions of chaos to round up undocumented workers and to deport them, we can see the tightening of a regime that already, even without a virus, had conjured apocalypse for the poor, the unhoused, the incarcerated and the disabled. What happens next depends upon us. We can clear the way for the witch-hunters to come in and finish us off by turning us on each other or depending on us to turn a blind eye while others are deported, abandoned, left untreated or otherwise rendered destitute, or, we can take advantage of the destitution of the system as a whole to set about unbuilding the world that the witch-hunters made, the world that burned women for wearing trousers, imprisoned indigenous people for their knowledge, and offered Christian judgement as a system of rule. While our world is not the world of Vardo, it is, as Sylvia Federici and Paul Preciado and Barbara Ehrenreich and others have shown, a consequence of those witch hunts in the early modern period.
The knowledge of medicine that so-called witches harbored, and the forms of intimacy that women cultivated in the outer reaches of patriarchy were swept away by medicine, hetero-patriarchal capitalism and the burgeoning nation state. Now more than ever, instead consenting to the destitution of the sick and impoverished, we need to figure out how to destitute medicine itself – medicine as in the pharmaceutical order that collaborates with insurance companies and health care systems to make sure that health is big business. We also need to destitute (and yes, like The Invisible Committee in their manifesto NOW, I am using “destitute” as a verb, an action word) the fathers who rule us – the bloated, power-mad men who protect each others’s interests and value their financial investments over all else. We can and must destitute the racial order that such white men hold in place and we should find a way to read the languages of other orders of being that never came to be but that harbored other values, made different commitments and cultivated alternative relations to non-human life. With the economy in free-fall, the government in retreat, institutions in lock-down, we might want to ask about what comes after the whole system falls to its knees. While the Zionist actress Gal Gadot circulates a much reviled video of celebs squeaking out John Lennon’s “Imagine”: “Imagine” — “Imagine there’s no heaven/It’s easy if you try/No hell below us/Above us only sky/Imagine all the people living for today” — we should instead be asking each other to imagine world without capitalism, a world without patriarchs, a world without insurance companies, a world with universal health care and so on.
As Hargrove’s amazing novel, The Mercies, shows, crisis leads to a fork in the road. One way rights the balance and leads back to “normal life,” the other moves in the opposite direction and leads elsewhere with outcomes that are unknown. The storm that took the men of Vardo both delivered the women to a new order of life, love and labor and brought a religious white man to right the balance. The storm gave and the storm took away, and we should look now for its gifts before the wind dies down, the waves settle and we see a wealthy white man walking out of the water.