Girl Power: Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks

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In Quan Barry’s deliciously irreverent We Ride Upon Sticks, which turns every Brat Pack-era phallocentric trope on its head, the 1989 Danvers High School field hockey team parties like it’s 1699. Or 1692, more precisely, when townspeople in Salem previously, famously, dabbled in witchcraft. After some senior players discover an instructive passage in a history of the Salem witch trials (Barry’s narrator points out that modern-day Danvers is the precise location of whatever seventeenth-century shenanigans historically occurred), they see a deal with the darkness—their loosely defined, secular version of Satanic powers—as their only chance to steer their loser squad into a state championship. Teen spirit replaces the diabolical, in other words, and their pact is signed not in the Book of the Beast but in the pages of an Emilio Estevez notebook. “It would be futile to wonder what would’ve happened if we’d never signed our names in that notebook. We did. It was the ‘80s. In a few months, the Berlin Wall would come tumbling down. We signed our names and we lived with it. The rest is history.” It is League of their Own and Breakfast Club and Stranger Things: a send-up of 1980s cultural ephemera with a Gen Z sensibility.

Through a sequence of chapters loosely dedicated to the points of view of each senior starter, the Bildungsroman recounts the burgeoning witches’ discovery and incubation of their talent over the course of a long season of games, from a preseason camp at the University of New Hampshire through the state finals. It’s no spoiler to say that the team progresses to the finals; Emilio Estevez, as he equally demonstrated in Mighty Ducks, has dark powers that can turn the most inconsequential team into a force. After the first preseason game in Durham, New Hampshire, Barry deftly pivots to a more total view of the team’s lives; they are a collective unit through field hockey, but other demands drive the plot: boys, perms, college graduation essays, their parents’ divorces, their own sense of themselves as first- or second-generation Americans, as descendants of slaves, as queer youth without the vocabulary or heady confidence of today’s generations weaned on TikTok and YouTube explainer videos defining the spectrum of LGBTQ+ identities. (I am a white cis gay man born and raised in New Hampshire, to disclose those potential biases.) And it’s the panoply of voices, each with their own concerns and neuroses, that are the greatest joy and propulsion for the narrative, even for those of us too young to share Barry’s encyclopedic knowledge of each trend and advertising slogan from the late ‘80s.

To contain this legion, for they are many, Barry uses a first-person plural narration to reinforce the collective mentality of the team. Benedict Anderson calls it an “imagined community,” the way nations—and maybe any group—ignore their internal differences to combine forces against an outside Other. Who plays the Danvers High School field hockey team’s Other, or primary antagonist, cannot be narrowly defined. The other teams they face are no true opponents, each match a fait accompli through their successful spell-casting. While there are the inevitable high school politics and locker room confrontations, particularly for the one gay boy on the team, the primary conflict is not with the strictures of heteropatriarchy; the top jocks and college bros they meet along the way all inevitably find, vis-a-vis lessons in sisterhood familiar to any fans of American Horror Story: Coven, that teenage girls are a force to be reckoned with. Not even The Man, that abstract bane of Ferris Bueller represented here by inept police officers, principals, and a coach who, despite how many times she presses her fingers to her chest in silent pleas that they play with better sportsmanship, cannot control the forces the players have unleashed upon themselves.

You have to read closely to find any explicit reference to what the Lady Falcons are actually up against, because Barry mostly reveals it through foreshadowing and counterexamples. Here, in a mid-season match, is the narrator’s final judgment rendered upon their opponents:

They ran around the field in the fading light smiling and high-fiving each other despite their mistakes, their hats casting shadows on the ground ten feet tall. Maybe that was their magic. Having fun and enjoying one another’s company. Being lifted up even when you were being beaten down.

That is: past incarnations of the Danvers High School field hockey team have definitely not enjoyed one another’s company, and maybe this current iteration is still learning whether they can see past each other’s differences to become a community. For a time in his chapter, Boy Cory, the gay player on the team, loses the focus that maintains his telepathic connection to the rest of the coven. When the others find out and plug him back into their midst, Barry writes: “Honestly he felt relieved. For the time being, he was safe. He didn’t have to think anymore. Maybe it was a lesson for all of us. Eleven sticks bundled together can withstand anything. One stick out in the cold all on its own can’t even withstand itself.” As for many teenagers, the team’s biggest threat is their own capacity for self-harm, that balance where peer pressure ends and legitimate camaraderie begins.

This is familiar territory to the Molly Ringwald and Heathers fan clubs, yet what keeps it fresh is Barry’s electric prose, through which she captures the esprit de corps of a high school varsity squad just as well as the 1980s zeitgeist drips like sticky residue from the potions, wine coolers, and spirits the team lifts from their parents’ cabinets. You know these girls, or were among them; you remember, if not an exact car wash fundraiser, an emotional truth that the novel bubbles back up from the lizard brain that dominated your high school social interactions. The first-person plural voice allows for a kaleidoscopic effect, from the self-conscious stereotypical consumerism of a trip to the mall or the pounding refrains of Pat Benatar or Janet Jackson, to a prescient lens that provides perspective beyond the shallow desires of prom dress, first kiss, and the life lessons their—and many—modern-day sex education curriculums failed to instill. When one captain describes how her boyfriend cajoled her into sex on the beach in Hampton, New Hampshire, that voice clicks into gear with reframing perspective: “None of us thought to feel bitter on her behalf. What did our mothers call it? Bad sex. Thirty years from now what would our daughters call it? Rape. Both our mothers and our daughters had their points.” Yet the plural pronoun has limits in its collectivity. There are surely other “we”s who’d argue even if consciousness-raising groups hadn’t penetrated Danvers polite society by 1989, rape is rape, and of course there are still those men who would guess that the surnames Friedan, Lorde, and Solnit belong to the actresses who played witches in Hocus Pocus.

Some readers might find the cumulative effect of those same rhetorical devices grating. The foreshadowing Barry allows herself through the omniscient first-person plural propels most of the plot development, rather than a more inherent driving force in the narrative. As the story progresses through the season with a closer look at each player, there’s a narrative impulse to make sure the reader remembers each player through epithets deployed like kennings: the French Canadian goalie’s bilingual and sacrilegious swears, the right winger’s rich father, the sweeper’s Kool-Aid-dyed hair, the one co-captain’s raw food diet and the other’s prodigious coif the players have all deemed The Claw. Much like eavesdropping on any group’s recitation of a collective memory, the narrator recounts events within any vignette out of chronological order. The resulting effect is that no character receives complete catharsis in her dedicated chapter, and the ramifications of one co-captain’s continuous hair bleaching—a comedy of errors—is presented at the same order of importance as reckoning with being the only Black person on the team, or navigating a crisis of religious faith, or the pressures of an immigrant family. And, without spoiling a surprise from the final act, some of Barry’s narrative choices may open her to the same criticisms as Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird received.

But this is We Ride Upon Sticks: someone’s perm falls out, someone becomes prom queen. Someone has a meet-cute at an underage drinking party with a boy who is captain of the swim team. It’s all homage, and the stereotypes and the voice are part of that. It is a wonderful tribute to high school sports, and to the ‘80s youth culture obsession that has never wholly left us, however you want to slice that “we.” And it just might cast a spell on you, too.

Andrew McKernan is a writer in Chicago. He holds an MFA from the University of New Hampshire. His poetry and prose have appeared in Ninth Letter, Blunderbuss, CutBank, and other journals. More from this author →