The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel
by Alyssa Palombo
Expected Publication: October 2nd, 2018 by St. Martin’s Griffin
From Goodreads: When Ichabod Crane arrives in the spooky little village of Sleepy Hollow as the new schoolmaster, Katrina Van Tassel is instantly drawn to him. Through their shared love of books and music, they form a friendship that quickly develops into romance. Ichabod knows that as an itinerant schoolteacher of little social standing, he has nothing to offer the wealthy Katrina – unlike her childhood friend-turned-enemy, Brom Van Brunt, who is the suitor Katrina’s father favors.
But when romance gives way to passion, Ichabod and Katrina embark on a secret love affair, sneaking away into the woods after dark to be together – all while praying they do not catch sight of Sleepy Hollow’s legendary Headless Horseman. That is, until All Hallows’s Eve, when Ichabod suddenly disappears, leaving Katrina alone and in a perilous position.
Enlisting the help of her friend – and rumored witch – Charlotte Jansen, Katrina seeks the truth of Ichabod Crane’s disappearance, investigating the forest around Sleepy Hollow using unconventional – often magical – means. What they find forces Katrina to question everything she once knew, and to wonder if the Headless Horseman is perhaps more than just a story after all. In Alyssa Palombo’s The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel nothing is as it seems, and love is a thing even death won’t erase.
Though it has its roots in German folklore, Washington Irving’s story, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, has become quintessentially American, moving away from the realm of fairy tales and into that of ghost stories. For all its fame, though, the original tale is fairly short, its characters flat and lacking any real depth beyond “geeky schoolteacher”, “young, pretty girl” and “arrogant jock”. Other works have fleshed these characters out, but most, like Tim Burton’s 1999 film, Sleepy Hollow, or the 2013 TV show of the same name, focus on Ichabod Crane.
In The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel, Alyssa Palombo seeks to rectify this lack of emphasis on Katrina through her elegantly told story of friendship and love. As in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, Katrina is the beautiful daughter of the wealthiest man in the eerie town of Sleepy Hollow, located in the woods of northern New York where every rock and tree seem to have a ghost story attached to it. When the story opens, Katrina is eighteen years old, the town beauty, the apple of her parents’ eyes, and accustomed to getting her way in everything. When the new school teacher, Ichabod Crane, arrives to introduce himself to her father, Katrina is immediately intrigued– especially when Crane offers to give her music lessons. A mutual attraction forms, and the two are soon desperate to be together and end up sneaking into the woods by night to steal a few hours alone.
While the two are desperately in love, Ichabod Crane is a lowly schoolteacher with little money and no property to his name. Katrina, in contrast, is a wealthy heiress and her father, Baltus Van Tassel wants to find her a similarly wealthy husband who can manage the Van Tassel lands when he is dead. Brom Van Brunt is an ideal match in Baltus’s eyes, but Katrina has hated Brom for years, ever since he made an accusation that nearly destroyed her best friend Charlotte’s reputation and life in Sleepy Hollow.
The fates of Katrina, Ichabod, Brom, and Charlotte take a twist one All Hallows’ Eve, when Ichabod disappears under mysterious circumstances, leaving Katrina in a dangerous situation that forces her to make a series of difficult decisions that change her life forever.
If the star-crossed romance is the spark that sets this story ablaze, Katrina’s friendship with Charlotte is the warmth that keeps it burning when Ichabod disappears. For all its romance, The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel is a book about women, female friendships, and the power women claimed in an era when, legally, they were nearly powerless. No matter the twists and turns in their lives, Katrina and Charlotte stay together, taking each other into their confidences and sharing their deepest secrets. As much as one asks of the other, as much as each girl’s decision might pain the other, they forgive each other in the end and wish each other happiness. Instead of devolving into pettiness and deliberate misunderstanding– as happens with too many female friendships in popular culture– Katrina and Charlotte support each other, even when one has made a decision that angers the other.
The atmosphere, too, supports the story. Sleepy Hollow is a quaint and ordered town with its church and school and provincial expectations. Everyone is very proper and no one does anything unexpected. This order is contrasted with the woods, an eerie milieu where spirits seem to loom at every turn, where emotions run wild, and anything might happen. Oddly, when reading the passages in the forest I was reminded of another American classic, The Scarlet Letter, where the woods are regarded as a wild and frightening place full of passion and danger. But where Nathaniel Hawthorne leads Hester Prynne into a life of condemnation for her romantic entanglements among the trees, Alyssa Palombo avoids the same easy morality. While Katrina pays dearly for her secret journeys into the woods, Palombo does not punish her Katrina for her youthful passions. This is not a didactic story about double standards where the heroine stands tall, but alone. Rather, it is a tale of a girl growing into the woman she must become and the friendship that sustains her.
Though the book is called The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel, there is less magic than I had expected. This is not a mark against the book, however, as I think more magical elements would have spoiled the story. While there are definite moments of stereotypical magic, Palombo seems to be reaching back to the origins of the word, ‘witch’, which, arguably, trace back to Middle English, German, and Dutch words that mean, ‘one who knows’ or ‘wise woman’. And indeed, Charlotte and her mother are wise women who serve as healers in Sleepy Hollow, but who are also able to See secret knowledge about their neighbors, the past, and sometimes even the future. Katrina senses echoes of Charlotte and her mother when she reads MacBeth and ponders the magic of the Weird Sisters, but it is not until later that Katrina develops her own form of magic. As a willful, spoiled teenager she cannot see anything but her own desires. She must grow up and begin to truly see the people around her before she can peer into a realm beyond mortal sight.
My only issue with the book is the inclusion of the prologue. It reads like a typical “everyone thinks they know what the story is about, but here is what actually happened” introduction. I don’t think the story is any stronger for its inclusion, and though it is a scant page long, I found it to be distracting and unnecessary. But that is my only complaint. The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel is a quiet, atmospheric retelling of a well-known American legend, told from the point of view of the girl who seems almost incidental to the original story. It is, at its core, a story of women’s lives– their loves, their choices, and the power of the friendships that sustain them.
I would like to thank NetGalley for providing me a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This did not influence my opinion in any way.