Willa Reece’s witchy new novel, Wildwood Whispers, is set in the Appalachians, so it seemed fitting for me to read it while on vacation in the Appalachians this past summer, surrounded by my own wildwood — one that seemed “mysterious” and “sentient,” like the wildwood described by Reece — a “place of lavender and secrets.”
Willa Reece is a penname for Barbara J. Hancock, the author of several paranormal romance novels. She lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and knows her setting well.
In fact, the wildwood is a character in its own right here. When the story opens, Mel Smith has just lost her best friend Sarah Ross in a hit-and-run accident in Richmond. Sarah always seemed to know things before she should know them, and now, something of Sarah has been left behind… in Mel. Mel starts to dream Sarah’s dreams, remember Sarah’s memories. Mel even remembers the body of Sarah’s mother Melody, swinging from a black locust tree in Sarah’s childhood garden, the wildwood just beyond.
Recognizing her preternatural bond with Sarah, and grieving her friend’s loss, Mel travels to Morgan’s Gap, Sarah’s birthplace, to lay her to rest. She is looking for closure, but she isn’t prepared for the connection she feels to the wildwood that surrounds Sarah’s mountain home, or to the women of Morgan’s Gap.
It’s not long before Granny, for instance, a “fay grandmother with pockets full of herbal tea,” reaches out to her. Other women follow: a dulcimer-maker, a brewer of dandelion wine, a basket-weaver, a beekeeper. Many of the women of Morgan’s Gap are wise, and, Mel finds out, many are wisewomen — knowledgeable about herbal healing, magical charms, folklore. They are attuned to the wood and to its gifts. They are its caretakers. A wisewoman’s goal, after all, is “to nurture the connection between man and nature. And to use the connection to help and heal her community.”
In short, the women are witches, and soon, Mel discovers that she, too, might have witchy ways. She becomes Granny’s apprentice and works her way through the recipes in the Ross family’s ancient “remedy book,” attracts a familiar in the form of a surprising animal, and manipulates the flight of bees. She begins to know things before she should know them. Like Melody and Sarah before her, she listens to the whispers from the wildwood.
But something dangerous is brewing on the mountain alongside the dandelion wine. Reverend Moon, the strange leader of a backward religious cult known as the Sect, threatens her. He herds a bevy of women in kerchiefs and homespun dresses through town, “all their individual needs and desires unspoken and unseen.” Many attempt to escape. The ways of the Sect can’t be more different from the wisewomen’s: The Sect is all about “austerity,” whereas the wisewomen are all about “abundance.” The Reverend seems to be colluding with Morgan’s Gap’s domineering mayor in some sort of criminal conspiracy — one that might have something to do with Melody’s murder and Sarah’s suspicious death.
At times the details of Mel and the other wisewomen baking, canning, and gardening — all the “kitchen alchemy” — slowed the story’s movement. And the Sect’s settlement is hinted at but never described. It would have been interesting to see Moon in his lair. Even so, I rooted for Mel and the other women. Would Mel ultimately take up Melody’s and Sarah’s legacy? What of Mel’s growing attraction to an enigmatic biologist named Jacob Walker? Will the mayor’s wife and the Sect women break free from their captors?
Reece’s novel weaves together feminism, romance, and environmentalism. Like The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, Reece’s message appears to be that women must come together to recognize, hone, and exert their power, which is ultimately founded in connection and community. It’s also a love story. “I’m not looking for love. That’s not why I’m here,” Mel says, despite the fact that she can’t stop thinking about Jacob. “Of course, that’s why you’re here. That’s why we’re all here,” Granny replies.
Above all, however, the novel is a paean to the wilderness, and a reminder to reconnect with it. The wildwood is special. It should be protected, even revered. “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” wrote John Muir. The wood has something to say. It calls. But as Jacob says, “Lots of people hear. A select few listen.”
By Willa Reece
Published August 17, 2021