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When You Worry

We Ride Upon Sticks: A Novel

By Quan Barry 

14 Oct, 2022

Doing the WFC's Homework

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Quan Barry’s 2020 We Ride Upon Sticks: A Novel is a supernatural historical comedy coming-of-age novel. [Editor: quite a pile-up of adjectives there!]

Considered separately, high school students Abby Putnam, Girl Cory, Boy Cory, Mel Boucher, Jen Fiorenz, Sue Yoon, Amy Little Smitty” Smith, Julie Kaling, Becca Bjelica, Heather Houston, and AJ Johnson are ordinary teenagers. Together they are the Danvers Falcons field hockey team, whose failed teamwork is matched only by their appalling performance on the field. If the Danvers Falcons are not the worst team in the 1989 season, it’s not for lack of trying. 

A shockingly awful field hockey team is not their town’s only claim to fame. Danvers, Massachusetts, is the town that many of the Salem Witch Trial accusers called home. It is to this occult heritage a desperate Mel Boucher turns. Perhaps hockey success can be found in a mystical pledge to an infernal entity known only as … Emilio! 

Her occult pledge made, goalie Mel blocks an astonishing number of shots on goal. Her success is persuasive evidence. Soon all of the team members put their name in Emilio’s book, named for the photograph of 1980s dreamboat Emilio Estevez adorning its cover. Each team member dons a blue strip of fabric to mark their dark pact. All that remains is to see whether Emilio will deliver on his end of the bargain.

Emilio delivers! United by their infernal patron, the team discovers a unity it lacked before. Where previously they experienced only abject humiliation, now they enjoy victory … at least at first. 

When their edge over their opponents begins to flag, the team concludes that their deal is not a one and done. Clearly Emilio cannot be expected to guide them to repeated victories on the basis of a single communal act. Emilio must be fed. The only sustenance on which an entity like Emilio could feed is … sin! 

Determined to be victorious, each team member, separately and together, begins to transgress. Minor peccadillos at first. However, Emilio demands not merely sinful behavior but escalation. Soon, even light petting will not be enough to satisfy the team’s invisible sponsor. Darker acts are required. 


Animal welfare note: a beloved pet dies, but this isn’t what you might be expecting given the nature of the book. 

This is a reasonably hefty book. It doesn’t focus on a single protagonist. Just as the Danvers Falcons games require team effort, so too does the plot require that the author tells us what each member of the team is doing. 

Being set, as alluded to above, in 1989, an era now lost to myth, legend and geological record, there’s also the need to provide sufficient setting detail for verisimilitude. The author succeeds in painting a memorable portrait of the post-Reagan era from the perspective of American high school students. In fact, there was at least one detail I was certain that the author got wrong (the timing of Don’t Worry, Be Happy”) where it was I who was wrong. Clearly either the author’s memory is better than mine or she did her research. Or both.

Dark pacts with infernal forces have a way of going unexpectedly sour. While this is a comedy, so was 1989’s Heathers [1] (also set in an American high school) and Heathers had three murders, a suicide, and two attempted suicides. Readers concerned that a heartwarming tale of teenagers dabbling in forces with which humanity was not meant to tamper may be assured the author never succumbs to the urge for spatter.

In fact, the novel did something novels do not often do these days, which was to surprise me with the ultimate resolution. Wherever I expected the book to go, or feared it would go, is not where the characters collectively decided to take it. The journey was enjoyable, as was the destination. 

We Ride Upon Sticks: A Novel is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: Heathers, the film, is not referenced in the book. How odd.