[Review] Brom’s Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery
If it’s a Devil they want, then a Devil they shall have…
Whether we realize it or not, our society is built on the idea of projecting our anxieties onto others. Think about it. The land we claim to have “discovered” was occupied by the time Columbus found it, but in short order beliefs about the entitlement to the land were created that cast the indigenous peoples that lived here as “savages” who needed to be reformed by white settlers’ ideas, or disposed of in some form if they refused to cooperate. And so, onwards into history, white men in positions of power they create for themselves have been threatened by Others who are different from them (from different cultures to different genders to different beliefs) and constructed stories in their heads that cast them — the white men in power — as heroes confronting the villainy of anyone who dares to challenge them. This way of thinking has hardly changed since the beginning of documented and colonized time, but there are a few particularly poisonous areas of history where this anxiety has bled into the soil and reared its head.
With Slewfoot, Brom explores one of the most notorious instances of this kind: the Witch Trial era of the 1600s, when any woman who showed too bright a streak of independence or hesitancy in agreeing to Puritanical ideals was thought to be a witch. Abitha, one such rebellious young woman recently sold to a Puritan community to be married off to a stranger, is constantly butting heads with the people who try to silence her input on her life. Just when she is beginning to truly fall for her older but kindly husband Edward, a fatal accident leaves her a widow who must battle her husband’s brother to maintain control of her house and land and avoid indentured servitude. Meanwhile in the forest, deep in the cave where Edward met his tragic end, a being predominantly known as Father (eventually dubbed Samson) awakens after a centuries long sleep, led by his companions on a quest for blood — though the most important thing to Father is to understand his own identity and battle his fractured psyche.
Abitha and Samson both spend much of the novel trying to understand how who they understand themselves to be fits into the narrative of the societal ideas being pushed upon them. For Samson, the wildfolk that wakened him make him believe his greatest role is that of a bloodseeker, even though in his own heart Samson believes himself to be a creature more in tune with the inclination to bring life to the earth rather than take it. Abitha, meanwhile, simply refuses to bend to Puritanical ideas of a woman’s place, continuing the cunning ways she was taught and fighting for her freedom from under the hand of her husband’s domineering brother; as such, he labels her a witch and does his level best to have her either put into the stocks for punishment or killed. When Samson and Abitha meet, it sets off a vibrant quest of understanding across borders of belief. Samson believes himself first a creature without identity, then a personal god for Abitha, until he finally realizes his true purpose. Abitha never doubts her own position — she is in fact grimly aware of the stakes if she is to fail the eventual deal struck for her land — but she does have to constantly evaluate where she stands on what Samson is, and the full scope of the consequences of his being and his help.
One of Brom’s greatest strengths of storytelling is his ability to twist and maintain sympathies with characters we ordinarily understand to be villains — or at the very least markedly intimidating beings. The villains of Slewfoot are, for the most part, firmly in the Puritan human camp, but Samson’s companions and personal demons are none too savory creatures either. For much of the novel, in fact, I understood Samson to be akin to Pan far before his true nature was revealed, though naturally he is primarily referred to by others as the Devil or a demon. As he fights to understand himself and his shattered memories he struggles against the ideas of himself imposed by other people. Even the wildfolk we are meant to understand as his closest companions are selfish creatures bent on making him into the fullest version of one half of himself.
The struggle to understand one’s place in the Big Picture scheme of the world goes beyond any boundaries we use to separate ourselves from others. It does not matter what spiritual force you believe in or what your ideals are, we are all trying to find a place where we comfortably fit in the world. It becomes a matter of life and death only when the people above us impose their worldviews that effectively cast Others to the outside — or to the grave.
Slewfoot is an exceptional work of connection released in a time of anxiety-inducing levels of division. Connections with people, connections with the world, and connections of ideas. It is a story of growing comfortable with the full complexities of one’s identity and confronting traumas we do not wish to face in order to heal and grow to our fullest selves. It also functions as a cautionary tale about the dangers of poisonous belief systems. The monsters of times like the Witch Trial era were born from the seeds of mass panic and anxiety of the un-usual, and the myths surrounding these times are perpetuated by continuing cycles of empowerment and fear in equal measure. For every disenfranchised person finding connection in themselves through stories of the gods and practices of old, there are at least a handful of (usually privileged) people there to smother them either back into submission or out entirely.
Brom’s Slewfoot is all of this and more, at its heart another fascinating exploration of a mythos surrounding a genuine moment in history, reminding us once again that there is always a new perspective to approach from, and that connection is always possible.
I would like to thank NetGalley for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.