In Manufactured Witches by Michelle Rene, the rough, often desperate existence of Dust Bowl America is juxtaposed artfully with acts of sacrifice that are magical on so many levels. On the most basic level, many of the characters possess skills with magic, but the willingness of use and alternately refrain from that magic for a higher purpose makes this novel enchanting.
Coming off the freight cars and hopping onto a ride into the town of Tanglewood, teenage Nat encounters teenage Polly chained to a post. From that point on, we witness the strong moral compass Nat possesses and his fierce loyalty to those who have been mistreated and to those who have come to the aid of wayward children. Miss Camille takes Polly and Nat into her home. Rumored to be a witch, Camille is a fascinating, compelling character. Enigmatic and witty, Camille is an African-American who must face the disapproval of many in Tanglewood. Her combination of magic and street smarts allows her to protect numerous individuals – young and old – who must come to terms with their burgeoning powers.
Through the actions and recounting of the house occupants, the novel presents many intriguing storylines, including Polly’s emerging skills in teleportation, Crow’s heartbreaking experiences in his Navajo past, and Nan’s mythological legacy. Without giving away too much, these elements come together wonderfully in two successive climatic scenes: one at a circus, the other at the wayward home. Those scenes feature the whispering, incredibly persuasive Jack, who serves as a peculiarly vile villain,
Nat’s first person narrative really elevates Manufactured Witches. As much as the novel is an exciting and thoughtful tale about protecting individuals and larger legacies, Manufactured Witches centers on Nat’s insecurity about his self worth: “In the end, maybe that was my only power, blending into things as though I was cellophane.” His own journey toward apotheosis is as thrilling as anything else in this smart, magical novel.