I’ll tell you one thing about contemporary American high-school or high-school adjacent stories: I find the social dynamics baffling. Even the healthiest ones seen to have a solid underlay of oneupmanship and bullying predation, and in general, they seem pervaded by an air of casual, normalised cruelty that—for all the awkwardness and social isolation of my own school years—strikes me as alien. There’s something vicious about the American high-school story, and it’s present in far too many portrayals for there not to be a core of truth behind it.
The Scapegracers is Hannah Abigail Clarke’s debut novel. It shares the background of casual cruelty of most American high-school stories, although its focus is on sudden, unanticipated friendship and the brutality, loyalty, kindness, cruelty, cleverness, and power of adolescent girls than on school per se.
Sideways Pike, née Eloise, is a perpetual outsider in Sycamore Gorge and its two high schools, West High and East High. A witch and a lesbian, who doesn’t have any energy to spare on being nice, she wears her social-outcast status as proudly as any lonely teenager can. But when the three girls who rule the social pyramid of Sycamore Gorge—Jing, Yates, and Daisy—hire her to cast a spell at one of their Hallowe’en-October parties, the magic’s not like anything that Sideways has ever experienced before. When a dudebro leaves an unconscious Yates on the bottom of the empty pool with a pair of dead deer—and when Sideways regains consciousness herself the next day—she’s roped into helping the trio curse said dudebro to experience the consequences of his actions. And suddenly, unexpectedly, she finds herself welcomed into the heart of their friendship: best friends with three girls who’ll fight for her, show up for her, be a coven of witches with her.
The Scapegracers is much more interested in that friendship than in the more unusual problems that have accompanied Sideways’ suddenly larger magical success: the weird family of excessively Christian brothers who appear to hunt down witches and “purify” them of their magic just for kicks, who abduct Sideways in the middle of the night (an abduction which is essentially shrugged off); the mystery of Sideways’ spellbook and the existence of other witches, and the spellbook-devil that follows Sideways home. In a way, it’s intensely adolescent and domestic, in all its ferality (hardly a parent to be seen) and youthful desperation: queer as hell, with the youth figuring out their sexuality and to whom—or if—they want to be out, concerned with their friendship and with encouraging Sideways to flirt with the attractive girl she’d like to date.
Clarke has a compelling voice, and Sideways is an appealingly relatable protagonist. And I do enjoy a story about girls who start out confident and/or powerful and only grow more so. There’s a fierce and angry undercurrent to The Scapegracers, despite its meandering plot. I enjoyed it.
But honestly, the high-school milieu is never going to not be baffling.
What are you guys reading this week?
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. She was a finalist for the inaugural 2020 Ignyte Critic Award, and has also been a finalist for the BSFA nonfiction award. Find her on Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.