White Magic is divine, incantatory, a riddle, an illusion. In Elissa Washuta’s hands, this collection becomes more than the sum of its parts. The subjects of these essays are parts of a bigger story—like a spell with the intention to make whole what has been wounded. Readers of Washuta’s two previous nonfiction books will recognize some of the same terrain, but this collection creates a new narrative, a reckoning with healing and with growing up.
White Magic begins with Washuta's urgent desire to decolonize witchcraft and other spiritual practices. For example, the Native American practice of smudging with white sage has been commodified so thoroughly that sage bundles were recently offered for sale at Sephora. Washuta, who is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, wishes for “a version of the occult that isn’t built on plunder,” although she doubts whether such a thing exists.
Tapping into her roots, Washuta explores the ecology of the Seattle region through Native mythology, as well as the history of the region’s colonization by white settlers. Multiple essays focus on the legacy of sexual violence against Native women, contextualized through Washuta’s own harrowing experiences. These essays move deftly between the personal, cultural and historical to create resonances across time.
Some of the best essays in White Magic are the most intimate, especially the ones that wrestle with the piercing sorrow of romantic attachment. Why do we love those who cannot love us back—or worse, who might kill us? Under Washuta’s dexterous touch, these questions gain symbolic weight through nuanced excursions into pop culture, from Stevie Nicks and “Twin Peaks” to the video game Red Dead Redemption 2. These subjects might sound disparate, but Washuta’s gift for weaving metaphorical strands across essays creates a strikingly harmonious narrative whole.