This year, Starhawk’s “City of Refuge” was the gift I bought myself. I backed the Kickstarter and couldn’t wait for it to show up. Getting the third book in this series brought a lot of things full circle for me.
So this is not really a book review. This is that scene in High Fidelity when someone asks whether the main character’s records are arranged chronologically or alphabetically, and he replies that it’s autobiographical. This is the story of these books in my life, and this last chapter in that context.
I first read “The Fifth Sacred Thing” in 2005. I found it at Powell’s City of Books, my second home during my unhappiest days in Portland. I had read Starhawk’s nonfiction work since I was a kid; they were my first books on witchcraft that were written for practical use. She was a hero of mine, sparking my interest in permaculture and ecofeminism and introducing me to the dynamics of small group consensus for the first time. I had no idea that she wrote utopian (or Ecotopian) fiction, so I was dumbstruck to read the back cover when I spotted it on the shelf. I ran into the prequel, “Walking to Mercury” a week or two later.
The thing is, I’ve been telling people for years that “The Fifth Sacred Thing” is my favorite book. I always warn them that it isn’t great literature, but that it represented something new and precious to me, and I always felt pretty connected to it. I re-read it about once a year. It gained this status for me because I read it at a time in my life when I was living too small and not thinking far enough ahead. It made me examine a lot of my assumptions about people, sex, religion, the future, and what kind of person I wanted to be. The central conflict of the book is how to fight against war without warfare. It goes beyond passive resistance into a subtler blend of magic and martyrdom that I found intensely seductive.
But most of all, this is the book that convinced me that I had to move to San Francisco.
The city was described by an author who had fallen in love with the Bay Area that was and will never come again. In both books, the city is rich in its former character: a hotbed of free speech and demonstrations that provided the freaky freedom that a nation of weirdos needed. She follows that thread through to the AIDS epidemic and the slow decay of the movement, but stops short of explaining what it has become.
I’d be lying if I said I showed up expecting anything but Haight-Ashbury in 1968. I went out and found the drum circles, the public rituals and the hippie kids. But I got adjusted real quick to San Francisco in its second tech boom. I think Starhawk adjusted, too. She turned tech culture into intelligent crystals to work around the need to be connected and communicate. She turned this city into an impossible fantasy of wealth and security, better and more equitable than it is now, ultimately so perfect that outsiders in her books don’t believe it exists. With the real dilemma and the fictional one in her immediate view, Starhawk set her sights on the dry south for this third (and hopefully final) installment.
There’s less magic in “City of Refuge” than either of its predecessors. It lacks any of the hardcore witchcraft of “Fifth,” skipping over any of the much-hyped sacred group sex or miraculous dream-working by Madrone. Our heroine visits the bees and the Melissa again, only to be told ‘lol idk’ when she asks what she should do with her ever-growing power. Bird sings songs of revolution, but they’re only understood by decayed academics and they don’t turn the tide. The movement Bird and Madrone start attracts nuts and trolls, and without the convenience of the Wild Boar People to stash the undesirables, the second act of the book reads like a long internet comments section.
It ends in triumph, but one that flatly subverts the message of nonviolence carried by the first two, roundhouse kicking the banner out of the hands of our heroes and replacing it with rifles and tiredness; the same old tale about the same sad world. The driving ideal behind “Fifth” was that nonviolence could change the world. In “Refuge,” blowing up ships will do, I guess.
Throughout, Starhawk backpedals on what was great in the first books. Real-world curse words are replaced with such toothless substitutes as “What the jacks?” in an attempt to separate sex from the profane, according to an author’s note. River’s immediate love of real food is retconned into a widespread love of ‘chips,’ a transparent reference to poor kids’ dependence on junk like Taki’s or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The abortion scene in “Fifth” is repeated for no clear reason, and the reader learns nothing from it.
Bird, who was once the contemplative center of a story about transforming our inner violence to curb our outer violence, becomes a flat manboy whose thoughts are opaque to us as he works Madrone’s last good nerve in an effort to be her partner. And Madrone, who was the witch to beat all witches in modern fiction, spends the whole book nesting and fussing over whether or not it’s time to get knocked up. I signed up for the coming-of-age of the next revolutionary generation, not love among the ruins for people who’ve decided it’s time to stop being badass magicians who shut down nuclear plants and travel to the place where three roads meet and time be conventional, have some kids, and sweep the floor.
“City of Refuge” is weary. It is lost in the description of generations of trauma and the grey shitty barrenness of Los Angeles. It is punctuated by the memoirs of the witch queen of the series, Starhawk’s clear self-insert Maya Greenwood. It is the indulgence of the writerly mind with near-nonsense rhymes spouted by a street prophet, where there used to be an attempt to eff the ineffable. It is a weak iteration of what used to be a powerful theme.
Starhawk has been my hero since I was 15 years old. This book says clearly to me that a lifetime of activism has diminished or maybe destroyed her faith in magic to the degree that it’s just about gone, even in her fanciful utopian fiction. Those memoirs ought to be hers, rather than assigned to a fictionalized version of the author. The best stories are hers, and the advice in there is priceless. I wish Starhawk had written that, and let this fading little world go for good. I still hope she will.
I’ve gotten older too, and I’ve lost much of my early belief in what change was possible if we acted courageously and boldly. I suppose it was unfair of me to expect this book to restore me or inspire me, but I got so much from the first two that my expectations were quite high.
There was something I glimpsed between the pages of “Fifth” and “Mercury.” It was the promise of the world to come; an idea that we really could make that next leap of civilization, even after terrible losses and under the undying threat of tyranny. It was that fiction I moved to the Bay to pursue; and I’ve grown up with it as an unattainable but tantalizing beacon toward the next world. Like most aspects of growing up, I see now that it’s smaller and dimmer as I get closer to it, and that the ones who lit it have long since moved on.
I guess it’s time for me to move on, too.
2 thoughts on “Starhawk’s of City of Refuge: the Fading Magic of Nostalgia”
Anyone reading this–note: this book is WELL worth the read. Incredibly moving. I understand the critic, however personally, disagree with the overall assessment. This story is not pure idealized nonviolence–it is the struggle to strive toward a more functional society, and still–the ideals of nonviolence are still kept in the hearts of the characters–in spite of the fact that throughout the story they all struggle to maintain this ideal in the face of their own destruction. The “near-nonsense rhymes spouted by a street prophet”–lol, I swear I actually MET this woman recently–the likeness in speech pattern was uncanny–so it was very relateable to me.
Also the bit about the bees was APT to the story–it could be likened to an individual attaining certain spiritual awakenings within say isolated spiritual communities who intentionally separate themselves from the diseased society–and yet the desire to communicate and share the spiritual understanding in an accessible way to the masses–be a bridge–becomes something which alienates the individual from the isolated spiritual group. Just one interpretation–
There is a lot more I could say–I just finished the book this morning–in general though, I just wanted to offer a contrasting opinion–with respect to the perspective of the op. Nonviolence is an ideal–the reality of the movement toward nonviolence though includes real struggle and setbacks–real people are complicated. it is always difficult to be an artist with fans who expect the same thing from you over and over again–ie. Bob Dylan and his folk fans who turned against him when he went electric. Starhawk is a wonderfully accessible writer, and her ability to communicate practical information in an engaging and relateable way is inspirational, to say the least.
I appreciate your point of view and respect your opinion of it as well. I wrote this out of immediate disappointment, and I continue to love the writer. Just wasn’t what I expected from the series.