World Made by Hand / The Witch of Hebron by James Howard Kunstler
I read these two books recently. I read The Witch of Hebron over the course of a couple of days last weekend and World Made by Hand last night at work (I had a lot of free time). I guess I read them in the wrong order, but it didn’t seem to matter. Both books were fairly easy reading and page-turners.
The background to the story is that the United States was involved in a major war in the “Holy Land” with the Chinese and Arabs. There were some major terrorist attacks, including some nuclear bombs (not sure if this was a terrorist attack or “act of war” – either way, same result), a major pandemic, skirmishes with Mexico and hyperinflation. Oil stopped flowing into the United States and people were forced to live an agrarian lifestyle in the absence of fuel. Race riots broke out in the major urban areas. No one is certain about the fate of the US government, news from outside the immediate area is scarce or sketchy and communities are largely on their own, with mixed results. Both of these stories take place several years after the “old times” were over and people have generally adjusted to their reality but there’s still knowledge of how things used to be.
I liked both of these books because for the most part they had realistic characters with realistic traits and qualities coping with these situations in a realistic manner. Well, there’s some supernatural undertones and a few situations that seem a little out there, but hey, the guy is trying to write an interesting story. The New Faith compound seemed reasonable enough (nothing too outlandish), there really weren’t any superheroes in the book and the ways people managed to get on with life seemed reasonable. The world didn’t completely turn into Little House on the Prairie, nor did it turn into Mad Max but there were certainly elements of both in society. People still acted on some of the same motivations that drive people today – love, lust, friendship, materialism, greed, fear, religion, whatever.
Oh, and reading the book recently seemed particularly poignant considering the way it seems like they’re really starting to bang on the war drums in the Middle East right now. The back story doesn’t seem outlandish at all, unfortunately. Pretty much everything that caused the world to end up like it does in the two novels is either happening now or very likely to happen. His depiction on how these things will play out is speculative, but again, nothing seems too unreasonable. I believe the author has some non-fiction books on the subject, which I’ll make a point to seek out.
I think my favorite part of the book was the descriptions of food. In the world Kunstler creates, folks are largely dependent on what they can produce for themselves or trade. There are no supermarkets or produce flown in from halfway across the world. People grow things, raise livestock and forage for their food. They practice food preservation techniques and do things like brew beer, distill alcohol and so-on. Much of the food they eat is seasonal. For instance, The Witch of Hebron takes place in the fall so there’s a lot of mention of things like kale, turnips, arugula and potatoes. World Made by Hand takes place in the summer, so there’s scenes of berry picking and tomato cultivation. Reading about things like roasted meat with root vegetables, cornbread with butter and honey, fresh eggs with homemade cheese, bacon, ham, etc. was almost too much to take. The scenes involving Barbara Maglie (the witch) were probably the most vivid in the two books. It made me think of The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil where the people were forced to produce for themselves and ended up with better quality and more nutritious food than before. I suppose I should add that I’d rather be able to enjoy these kinds of foods now when I have the option of ordering a pizza and having someone drive to deliver it to me or getting an apple flown in from Chile in the off season if I want to than if I had no other choice, like the characters in the book.
In addition to the great food descriptions, I think The Witch of Hebron did a great job evoking the feeling of fall, especially now as it starts to get a little chilly at night and the days are getting shorter and I’m more conscious of it. Kunstler describes harvests, builds around a supernatural/Halloween theme, the weather and of course some of the foods typical to the season. It’s definitely a good book for this time of year. World Made by Hand didn’t quite have the same effect.
Between the two books, I’d have to pick The Witch of Hebron as the better of the two. Yeah, I know, the sequel is rarely better but I think it’s true in this case. I think it wins on being a lot more suspenseful and more graphic. Both are worthwhile to read, but I think The Witch of Hebron will be stuck in my memory a lot longer.
I liked the talk about commerce in the book. Cheese and ham was almost like money – it has value, it’s widely accepted, it’s easily divisible and the shelf life is so-so. People traded in silver and US dollars were accepted too, but in dollar amounts that suggest a lot of inflation before everything collapsed and very little confidence in the government (i.e. the cost of a few pounds of dried fruit in one transaction was either 10 cents silver or $1000 paper). Regardless of everything that had happened, people still found ways to produce things of value and trade them amongst each other without government involvement.
I have to say that the editorializing was muted in both books. It was there and it wasn’t always subtle, but it didn’t take away from the story and it was usually well-placed.
The people who had skills seemed to come out alright (i.e. the doctor). The people who didn’t (say, the lady and her dad at the farmhouse), they didn’t fare as well. People who were involved in now-obsolete trades had to learn something else – one character had a Ford dealership and ironically ended up in the donkey business, showering praises on them just like a car salesman would on a car.
As a preparedness-minded individual, reading both of these stories forced me to do a bit of a self-evaluation on the skills I have, the things I possess and the people I know and where that might take me in the event of something resembling the events of the World Made by Hand series. That’s the beauty of these kinds of books, you can put yourself into the situation and think about how you’d fare. I think I’m a few steps above the average person in that I already know some of the basic skills that people would have to fumble through when the stakes are high and I already possess some of the things I would need to facilitate my survival…. But I definitely don’t know everything I’d like to know and I don’t possess everything I’d like to have. These books just provided a bit of a kicker to keep on the track I’m on.