How to Uphold the Status Quo: The Problem With Small Town Witch Romances

In the past two years, a thriving subgenre has emerged within SFF romance where plucky young witches living in cozy witch enclaves find love. These books often have winning cartoon covers and cute punny titles. They are set in idyllic small towns with atmospheric names and vague geography (“outside of Carbondale” or “deep in the North Georgia mountains”). They’re prone to sudden eruptions of boosterish nostalgia for girlboss settler colonialism. They are overwhelmingly written by white women.

I believe the books are meant to be light-hearted and charming, and it is certainly possible to read them that way, if you are not reading fifteen of them in a row with the goal of answering the research question, why is this subgenre so white? But if you do have that research question, and you do read fifteen in a row, it becomes clear that they are (inadvertently, I believe) laundering racist ideas through a storefront of adorability, allowing white readers to feel—as the protagonists feel—like simultaneous victims of and champions against systemic bigotry.


The Normies are in Trouble, or the Normies are the Trouble?

The best predictor of how racist a book in this genre will feel is the extent to which it frames witches as an embattled minority. About half of the books I read feature a world of witchcraft that absolutely must be kept secret from the mundanes, lest they burn the witches at the stake. Even in the safest havens of Nowheresville, USA, our characters work hard to ensure that normies never find out about magic. You know, because of witch-burning.

In precisely zero of the books I read for this column does a normie actually cause harm to a witch. In precisely zero of them does a normie wish to cause harm to a witch. Yet the witch characters maintain—and the text supports them—that they might at any moment be subject to violence if their magic is discovered.

Meanwhile, witches cast unethical spells on non-witches kind of often, including witch characters we’re supposed to identify with and root for. At the end of Witch, Please by Ann Aguirre, we learn that Danica’s mother cast a curse many years ago to ensure that Danica’s soulmate (who turns out to be Titus, her love interest) would be unable to successfully bone anyone but Danica. It’s played for laughs, because being a virgin and having no control over your own sexuality is hilarious, I guess. The cousins in Elizabeth Bass’s A Letter to Three Witches are prohibited from doing magic because their grandfather’s magical mistake caused the Dust Bowl; and one of the cousins admits, in the present day, to casting a spell on his longterm normie boyfriend when they first met, to make the boyfriend like him. In Lana Harper’s Thistle Grove series, the town maintains a citywide forgetting spell that alters non-witch visitors’ memories to ensure that they don’t remember any spells they’ve encountered while visiting.

Power dynamics notwithstanding, these girlies worry a lot about the danger normies pose to them. Danica Waterhouse of Witch, Please weighs the risk that mundanes might “dunk her in a pond or tie to her a pyre” if they catch her doing magic. Back in a Spell (by Lana Harper)’s Nina explains that witch secrecy exists “so [normies] don’t realize you’re living side by side with a host of tremendously powerful witches, whom you might then be moved to burn. Or send to fringe-science government facilities as specimens.” The love interest in Hazel Beck’s Small Town, Big Magic, advises, “Humans and witches mixed together always ends in pitchforks.” Thistle Grove’s official book of spells, the Grimoire, even contains some attack magic “in the event that Thistle Grove ever wound up needing magical protection against some invading force” (From Bad to Cursed). Of marauding normies, we are meant to assume. Not of, like, Native nations who want their land back.


Speaking of Land, What Was Elias Harlow Doing in Virginia in 1650?

After reading a certain number of these books, it becomes impossible to avoid aligning the witch fear of non-witches with white fear of non-whites, particularly given the close associations between whiteness and small-town and suburban America. In a recent piece for The Walrus that reflects on small towns in American TV, McGill professor Debra Thompson is quoted to say that small towns are seen as quaint “precisely because there are no Black people there.” While some of the books under discussion here do include BIPOC characters (and even BIPOC love interests), the idyllic quaintness they’re reaching for depends on the erasure of America’s centuries-long persecution of Black and brown communities. It’s a conundrum you can see authors struggling with: The towns must be old if they are to be picturesque; but they can’t be old without having also been implicated in this country’s violent history; but the violent histories can’t be talked about because they bring down the vibe.

The compromise (white) authors tend to strike is simply to pretend that American history didn’t happen, or at least didn’t happen in this place to these people. The ancestors of the protagonists of Ann Aguirre’s Fix-It Witches series “fled the Old World due to persecution, …and then with that dustup in Salem, they had quietly slid a bit further west to settle in and keep a low profile” (Witch Please). Emerson Wilde, of Small Town, Big Magic, mentions her admiration for her multi-great grandmother “who’d run a gun shop and trading post here when St. Cyprian[, MO,] was the frontier.” Elias Harlow, the founder of Thistle Grove, IL, came from Virginia to Illinois in the mid-1600s, and “the Sherwoods of Virginia” in Avery Flynn’s Witcha Gonna Do? are described as having been “among the power brokers since [the US] was only the thirteen colonies.” Erin Sterling’s Glen Graves, GA, was founded a mere century ago, which avoids the questions of slavery and American Indian removal, but puts the town’s founding smack in the middle of Georgia’s peak sundown town era.

You really, really cannot stop to think about this. If you do, you will start asking questions like “Did they encounter any, like, people on their ‘further west’ journey?” and “What were the Sherwoods getting up to in Virginia back when it was one of the thirteen colonies?” Trust me when I say that things will unravel for you very quickly once you start asking these questions. The witches were persecuted. The normies did the persecuting. Now the witches live in a witch town that they control. It’s not about race. Shush. Also, have you heard of a little thing called the Salem witch trials?

The insistence that witches are in constant danger of persecution makes for exceedingly strange bedfellows with the fact that our protagonists come from families with a great deal of personal and structural power. Please don’t consider it a flex, but rather a true expression of incredulity, when I tell you that I read fifteen of these books, and one or both protagonists in twelve of them belong to an ancient witch family whose legacy they must now uphold . The legacy tends to include a position of power in the governance of the town, the broader community of witches, or both. If a heroine or her family lacks power—magical or structural—when the book begins, you may depend upon it that her fortunes are in for a reversal.


But We’re the Good Ones!

With magic established as an inherited trait, it’s perhaps not a surprise that the rhetoric in a few of these books gets…uncomfortable. Witch Please uses the phrase “pure witch” four times. A protagonist who lacks strong magic is seen as “an indictment of the bloodline” (Small Town, Big Magic) or “the crack in the family lineage that proves the rot within” (Witcha Gonna Do?).

Distasteful as this is, it does offer our protagonists every opportunity to show that they and their friends are the Good Ones, aligned with the righteous march of progress. The most explicit version of the ideology I’ve described here is put in the mouths of villains and older relatives. The rhetoric is denounced by our protagonists as “old-fashioned talk” (Witch Please), “all the gross bloodline stuff” (Boss Witch, by Ann Aguirre), and our heroes set boundaries by sternly telling the prejudiced parent not to describe them or their hypothetical children as “faulty” or “lizard people” (A Witch’s Guide to Fake Dating a Demon, Sarah Hawley). The people who push this rhetoric most strongly are often punished by the text through a removal of their witch power (Back in a Spell), their structural power (Payback’s a Witch, by Lana Harper; Boss Witch), or both (Small Town, Big Magic).

Yet even as our heroes angrily disavow their parents’ and grandparents’ prejudiced words, the events of the book uphold their underlying ideologies. Witches really are at risk from non-witches, bloodlines do matter, and having the most power matters the most. This is annoying on a craft level and actively distressing after you have once thought about things like miscegenation and sundown towns, which, after a certain point, it is pretty hard not to.

The Fix-It Witches’ toxic grandmother turns out to be lying that marrying a mundane will destroy your magic, so Witch Please’s Danica doesn’t have to choose between her non-magic boyfriend and her magic life, which she really didn’t want to do anyway. Meanwhile, a sympathetic married couple in her coven chooses to use a pure witches–only sperm bank when conceiving their child. Payback’s a Witch’s Emmy may criticize her town for being “fundamentally caste-based,” but the book will ultimately agree with the girlfriend who says, “Friends are good, sure. But blood is blood. There’s no substitute”; and the grandmother who tells her, “Like it or not, […] this town is in your blood.”

Witcha Gonna Do?’s Tilda and Small Town, Big Magic’s Emerson prove the haters wrong not by having beautifully fulfilling lives without magic, but by proving to be phenomenally powerful witches after all. It’s suggested or stated outright that all of them can now—powers intact—take their rightful place within the ruling dynasty of the witch community. A Witch’s Guide to Fake Dating a Demon refreshingly allows the heroine to realize that the type of power she uses, while undervalued by her parents, is valid in its own right—but even then, she’s unusually powerful within her sphere of magic (plant magic), as was to be expected from her family background.

Power structures tend to remain intact, though the characters may push for incremental change or just put nicer people in charge, which happens for Payback’s a Witch’s Emmy when she becomes the leader of her entire witch community. The feared witch hunters in the Fix-It Witches series turn out to have been misguided witches themselves all along. Once they find this out, they voluntarily leave behind a lifetime’s worth of violently persecuting witches (“we win, no shots fired,” reflects the male main character). The dark secret of The Ex Hex (by Erin Sterling)’s town of Glen Graves is that the (white, male) founder stole the magic for the town from another (white, female) witch, meaning that a different longstanding white family—our heroine’s—should have been getting the credit for the town’s existence. The normie love interest of Back in a Spell, who’s initially furious about witches’ disregard for “all those minor concerns that could ostensibly be considered human rights,” concedes that it’s “entirely legit, all things considered” for the ruling witch families to “fear the burning mob.”

At no point does anyone we like lose out on something they want. Nobody, anywhere, has to grapple with the real-world prejudices that inspire and inform how the characters think and talk about witchcraft.


The Problem With Analogies

White supremacy has carved out well-worn roads. In Sara Ahmed’s words, “If a used path is made smoother by use, from the tread of past journeys, that smoothness makes the path easier to use; the more a path is used, the more a path is used; there is more to more.” The used paths of white supremacy are smooth to walk and easy to find ourselves on, particularly if we’re white. We excel at the moral dodges that allow us to keep imagining worlds where white people are the oppressed ones, actually. We trade on the plausible deniability of underdeveloped parallels to real-world marginalizations (Boss Witch’s Clem says, at one point, “You can’t compromise with someone who thinks you shouldn’t exist. Ever.”). We hide behind a shield of theoretical victimhood to justify our factual systemic power.

This subgenre is meant as a tonic, not a poison: here are problems easily solved by book’s end; here is a system where individual good intentions can create real change. SFF and romance both promise escape, but they falter when they forget that we cannot escape to without also escaping from. When we step back from the sparkling overlay of a book’s premise, we discover that we have ended up on the same old used paths, hiding the selfsame horrors from which we were promised escape beneath the veneers of fairy tale, utopia, or comfort. Whatever fictional or nonfictional marginalizations a white character may possess, they exist within the protective sphere of whiteness, and it is the moral imperative of white authors to grapple with that fact when we write about power, about history, about oppression—or else not to write about those things at all.


Jenny Hamilton reads the end before she reads the middle. She reviews for Strange Horizons and Lady Business and can be found at her website or on Twitter @readingtheend.



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