Cattywampus by Ash Van Otterloo.
Scholastic Press, New York, 2020.
MG fantasy, 280 pages.
Lexile: 810L .
AR Level: not yet leveled
Delpha’s strict mother’s biggest rule is a total ban on magic. But as they sink deeper into poverty, Delpha is ready to break any rule to prevent more of her beloved grandmother’s treasures from being sold off as tourist souvenirs.
Since finding out she’s intersex, Katybird has desperately wanted magic to prove she’s the successor to her family’s magical traditions. When that longed-for Hearn magic doesn’t manifest as planned, she’s desperate for a magical fix – even from a McGill like Delpha.
Together the girls unleash a terrible curse – threatening not just their families, but the whole valley.
Despite having read reviews before purchasing this title, I missed that Katybird’s younger brother is Deaf and they use ASL to communicate. I felt there were some flaws in this portrayal, but couldn’t adequately condense my thoughts to fit in this review. A longer post on the topic will go up later this week.
That’s not to say that anything seemed overtly wrong, there just wasn’t the sort of careful background and buildup as some of the other characters. This is a reoccurring theme with this particular book. While some of the many characters are fully and sensitively developed and none raise obvious concerns, it felt like certain characters or identities were included simply to increase diversity.
Van Otterloo did choose the disabilities represented here well. Healing magic does exist in Cattywampus; so it’s hard to imagine that, peace treaty ban on magic notwithstanding, a child (or parent of a child) with, say, a disability involving chronic pain would not be doing whatever possible to alleviate that condition. Being Deaf or intersex are both more personal, deeply identity-tied aspects of being.
Another surprising element was the heartwarming inclusion of Christianity. In retrospect it makes sense given the setting, but I was still not expecting any practicing Christians viewed in a positive light, in an LGBTQ novel.
That’s not to say the churchgoers were entirely positive – Katybird’s peers tried to pray her intersex condition away and disclosed her personal business to everyone at youth group. After that uncomfortable situation, she stops attending church, although it is still very familiar to her, and some (nonreligious) scenes take place there.
I’ve seen this. Some Christians have so much antagonism towards LGBTQ people, that they either don’t distinguish intersex people as a different situation, or force them to disclose more/sooner than they are comfortable doing. Or like in Katybird’s case, both. However, the antagonist in this aspect though is a California divination convert family whose main purpose in the story seemed to be as a foil between new age “witchy” beliefs and the longstanding local magical witch families.
It did make me happy to see a minor character, otherwise not much described, mentioned as having box braids. This is the opposite of the typical situation where whiteness is presumed and any characters of color are heavily described (often with food metaphors). That shows me that Van Otterloo is listening, and trying.
Although I’ve had some criticism for aspects of this book, as a whole I enjoyed it. Longtime readers will recall my general dislike of novels in two voices – it’s difficult to find an appropriate balance and rarely done to my liking. That’s why I read many reviews before deciding to purchase.
Van Otterloo manages her two main characters superbly. Aside from occasional adjustments in chapter length, the two have good balance, spend enough time together and apart to have coherent character arcs that both contribute to the story as a whole, and have banter that keeps the reading light even when the topics are heavier. She truly occupies the minds of both girls, and doesn’t at all have the same problems there that some of the minor characters had.
Also, Van Otterloo uses her two protagonists to explore different aspects of the same thing. For example, both are insiders/outsiders – popular Katybird is interested in clothes and makeup like many girls her age, but faces microaggressions and exclusion because of her chromosomal situation; loner Delpha has the capability and experience to be comfortable fixing a toilet or tracking through the woods, but is excluded due to her poverty and blunt practicality.
One of the many surprises in this book was the light feel to what, for more than half the book, was essentially a zombie story. I’m not much into horror. Typically the only non-scary zombie books use potty humor, which I can handle but am not particularly fond of reading. Cattywampus made me realize the right zombie story can be excellent.
This story reaches a suitable conclusion to stand alone, although there are certainly enough threads to pull should Van Otterloo wish to write a sequel. She’s already got an unrelated forthcoming book, and taking a break from these characters is wise. While we’d love to see more from Howler’s Hollow, balancing two voices is always tricky, and some side characters need a bit more thought. If she returns, hopefully those areas improve without losing the many good qualities of the writing.