The Wand that Rocks the Cradle: An enjoyable collection

Reposting to include Bill’s new review.

The Wand that Rocks the Cradle: Magical Stories of Family by [Litwin, Oren, Burnett, Misha, Deeds, Marion, Hemsath, W.O., Hoyt, Joanna Michal, Goddard, Michelle F, Gomel, Elana, Saverio, Frank, Sundeson, P.L.]The Wand that Rocks the Cradle edited by Oren Litwin

The Wand that Rocks the Cradle: Magical Stories of Family (2019) is a new anthology, edited by Oren Litwin, that’s just what it says on the tin: a collection of short stories about magic and family. As our reviewer Marion Deeds is one of the featured authors, I’m going to follow Skye, Jana, and Bill’s lead by eschewing the star rating, as they did when reviewing Marion’s Aluminum Leaves. This is an enjoyable collection, though, and worth checking out.

Marion’s story, “Bellwethers Know Best,” is the first in the book. The Bellwethers are a family of witches who, years ago, became famous by starring in a pair of reality programs that showcased their magic and their family dramas. The matriarch, Euphronia, is now dead, and her daughter Eden is alarmed when her daughter — a talented necromancer — begins manifesting Euphronia’s ghost. Now a TV exec wants to put together a new Bellwether show, ghost included, but Eden is concerned that both fame and necromancy might have deleterious effects on a child. The story is fun and clever, and so is Eden’s idea that solves everyone’s problems at once. Also, I know Marion loves corvids, and their inclusion here made me smile.

The next story, “Legacy” by Joanna Michal Hoyt, is set in the 1950s but feels like it could be ripped from today’s headlines. David is a migrant worker in California; he, his son, and their friend Soledad are caught up in a brutal immigration crackdown. David has a talisman that might be of help, but it can only be used once. This is a moving story about the senseless cruelty of the guards on the one hand, and the other hand, of the compassion of people who have nothing and yet still find ways to share with one another. It’s moving, and it’s saddening when one thinks about how little has changed.

W.O. Hemsath offers “Coffee Break,” the story of a young pregnant woman, Jess, juggling work and school while her husband is away working on an oil rig. Running late for work, she discovers a strange coffee shop that seems like it could solve all her time-management problems … for a price. At its core, I think this story is about how so many of us simply don’t have enough hours in the day for all of our responsibilities, and how tempting a few extra hours each day might be. I was disappointed in the ending, however; it brings home the moral but leaves much of the plot unresolved. I was hoping to find out how Jess dealt with the consequences, choices, and difficult conversations ahead.

In “She That Was So Proud and Wild” by Misha Burnett, a young man brings his bride-to-be home to meet the parents, apprehensive about what their reaction will be. We gradually learn more about Marc’s family during the drive to their isolated farm. At first it seems like they are Amish or something similar, but when we finally meet them, we learn that they’re actually into something even older. This has all the makings of a folk-horror story, but then an unexpected twist leads to an unconventional but satisfying ending.

“Dead in First Grade” by P.L. Sundeson is set in a near future where the dead can be brought back to life; they “live” and work alongside the living, but face discrimination. Emma’s first grade teacher turns out to be one of these. When Emma’s new best friend starts bullying the teacher, Emma has to decide where she stands, and also realizes something about her own family. “Dead in First Grade” is a good story in itself, but I also get the sense of a whole well-developed world beneath the surface like the lower portion of an iceberg. If Sundeson decided to write a full-length novel in this setting, I would definitely read it.

Elana Gomel’s “The Dragon Detector” is probably the most disturbing tale of the lot. In it, dragons exist and are used as weapons by terrorists. Once a dragon hatches, it cannot be killed; it will wreak destruction until the end of its short lifespan, and during that time can reduce entire cities to rubble. The only way to stop a dragon is to kill it in the egg, and dragon eggs can be hidden in ordinary objects. The protagonist, Ashley, is the only person who can “see” the eggs before they hatch. She has family troubles, too; a divorce and an estranged daughter. When her daughter uncharacteristically wants to spend quality time with her, Ashley can’t refuse, even though she doesn’t know what this meeting will be about.

“The Lake Cottage” by Michelle F. Goddard is another “meet the parents” story. John is on the verge of proposing to his girlfriend, Nadine, and introduces her to each of his divorced parents in turn. There’s a troubled history involving a lake cottage that was the source of much of the conflict between John’s parents. John himself nearly drowned in the lake as a child, and afterward saw something impossible in the water. The writing style of this one didn’t really click with me at first, but in the end it has some good things to say about avoiding the mistakes of one’s parents and creating a new future.

Frank Saverio’s “To Find a Peach” is different from the other stories in this collection in that it’s a secondary-world fantasy, and also because it doesn’t deal primarily with blood family. Cail is a royal steward, trying to hold the kingdom together during a deadly plague. The commoners have been devastated by the disease, and unbeknownst to them, most of the royal family has also died. Cail’s family in this context consists of his young page, Lande, who he is afraid to get too attached to because his previous page died; and the surviving princess, whose craving for a peach sends Cail and Lande out into the dangerous streets. “To Find a Peach” is a sad tale, but ends with a sliver of hope based on relationships of affection rather than blood.

The stories in The Wand that Rocks the Cradle feature a variety of takes on magic and family. The styles and tones differ, but it’s clear overall that magic can’t solve all of one’s family problems! I enjoyed the anthology and plan to look up more work by the featured authors.

~Kelly Lasiter


The Wand that Rocks the Cradle, edited by Oren Litwin, is a collection of fantasy stories that, as Litwin notes in the introduction, “ask the question: what makes family magical?” Like any collection of multiple authors, the stories vary in quality and impact, and while I would have liked more “good” versus “solid” stories, none were what I’d characterize as bad or uninteresting, which is relatively rare for an anthology. I need to note that one of the authors is our very own Marion Deeds, so in keeping with our policy, I’m not giving a star rating. Though hers is the first story, I’m going to review that one last.

“Legacy,” by Joanna Michal Hoyt is a moving story that, despite being set in the mid-1900s, is sadly all too timely, centered as it is on a group of exploited migrant workers who have crossed over illegally, particularly David, his son, and their young female friend Soledad. As the cruelty of their situation and their “employers” ramps up, David must wrestle with whether or not he should use a magical talisman given to him by his father with the instructions: “You can only use this once. For one person.” Hoyt does an excellent job in balancing people’s potential for cruelty and their potential for sacrifice and compassion.

“Coffee Break,” by W.O. Hemsath, was not as successful. A classic “magic shop” story, I found the premise it relied on at the end implausible and its logistics muddy in spots.

“She That Was So Proud and Wild,” by Misha Burnett, follows a young man returning to the isolated home he left years ago (on bad terms with his father) to introduce his fiancée to his parents. Beyond the familiar tension there’s something else a bit odd/creepy going on, and while Burnett does a nice job managing that tension, it had a few internal contradictions, and I felt the story really ended where it should have begun.

“Dead in First Grade,” by P. L. Sundeson, creates a world where an attempt to stop a deadly pandemic had the result of allowing the recently dead to be “called back,” which, after all the pandemic deaths, was a convenient source of needed labor. One such “deader” is Emma’s first grade teacher, which eventually puts Emma in a situation where she’ll need to choose a side between her teacher and a cruel classmate. The premise is a good one even if we’ve seen it before, but I found several of Sunderson’s plot choices to be a bit too blunt or on-the-nose and the reveal a bit predictable. And I also was a bit confused on the timing, given some of the references, some of which seemed to point to a near-future and some which seemed to point to a 60s setting.

“The Dragon Detector,” by Elan Gomel, is a pretty dark tale set in a world where dragon eggs are used by terrorists. The eggs can take on the appearance of everyday objects, making them impossible to find (mostly), and when the dragons hatch they cause massive destruction. Because dragons can’t be killed (they do die naturally relatively fast), the only way to avoid the disasters is to find the egg before it hatches and destroy it, but so far only one person, Ashley, seems to have the capability of sensing an egg’s presence. The story had potential, but it felt too abrupt to me, and I wanted more depth to the characters, more time to explore who they were.

“The Lake Cottage,” by Michelle F. Goddard, centers on another young man bringing a girlfriend back to an old haunting ground to introduce her to the parents, who in this case are divorced, at least partially over differing attitudes to the family lake cottage where John nearly drowned as a child. Again, the story has potential, but moved too quickly and so lacked depth of character, and I thought the dialogue had some issues as well.

“To Find a Peach,” by Frank Saverio, switches up tone from the prior tales, more of a traditional medieval secondary-world fantasy with royalty, castles, knights and a land that has been devasted by a Black Death-like plague. Cail, the Royal Steward, and his page Lande enter the town near the castle on a “quest” for a peach for the princess, sole survivor of her family, though the people don’t know that yet. The ending didn’t quite nail it, but Saverio creates a richly felt world and atmosphere, a strong sense of character in Cail, and in terms of tone balances bleakness and hope in good fashion.

Finally, there’s the first story in the collection, Marion Deeds’ “Bellwethers Know Best.” As noted above, Marion is a colleague of mine, which I’d feel compelled to note anyway due to ethics, but particularly because I thought it the strongest story in the collection. So I’ll leave you to take that as you may. The Bellwethers are a family with varying magical abilities who, back in the day, had their own highly popular reality TV shows: The Real Witches of Modesto, California and the titular Bellwethers Know Best. Eden was the “rebellious teen” in the first of the shows (her mother Euphronia’s signature line for the show was, “Eden, can’t we talk?”) and is now working for Magical Protection Services, happy to have left the entertainment world behind. Her sister Emmaline though, who misses the fame and money, has been pressuring her to get back into it, and now her family’s former agent, Aida, wants to do a new show (Real Witches of Modesto, California: The Next Generation) without Eden but with her mother Euphronia as the powerful mentor. Since Euphronia is dead now, though, Aida needs a necromancer to “facilitate the meetings and help bring her through,” and is hoping Eden’s ten-year-old necromancer daughter Eulalie might do it. Eden adamantly refuses, but of course things are more complicated than a simple “no way” can resolve. The story is witty, moves along at a great pace, does a great job at poking fond fun at reality TV/celebrity culture, but also does an excellent job of characterization as well as portraying real-life family issues. As I said, it was my clear favorite in The Wand that Rocks the Cradle, though I’ll have to leave it to you as to whether you trust me when I say I firmly believe that would have been the case had all the names been removed and I didn’t know it was Marion’s story.

~Bill Capossere

Published in 2019. Warm, heartbreaking, tender, poignant—eight fantasy stories of the family. Family is filled with magic. It can be the warm magic of love, with bonds that can never be broken; it can be the bitter magic of old resentments and keen disappointments. It can be achingly beautiful or terrifyingly cruel. Explore the hidden depths of family in this anthology of stories from celebrated and award-winning authors. Transport yourself to dazzling settings like an isolated lake cottage watched over by a mysterious protector, a reality-TV show about a family of witches, a world besieged by dragon-wielding terrorists, an oddly relaxing coffee shop, and New Orleans after the rise of the unquiet dead. Experience the wonder and magic of family.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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4 comments

  1. I have a copy and I’m looking forward to reading Marion’s story!

  2. “She That Was so Proud and Wild”… I would certainly read more about that universe too!

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