“Odd & True” was a pleasant surprise: a tale of two sisters that blends historical fiction about women in America at the start of the twentieth century, the hunting of supernatural monsters in the wild woods of New Jersey and an exploration of how the stories we tell ourselves and each other shape who we become.
It is a peculiar book that resists categorisation, insisting on creating its own unique place on my mental bookshelf. For me, it’s mainly a book about how women empower themselves and each other and how belief is, in itself, a form of magic.
Most of the action of the book is set in 1909 and revolves around two teenage sisters, Odette (Od) and Trudchen (Tru) who are on a mission to hunt the Jersey Devil.
Od and Tru are not the Winchester brothers in early twentieth-century dresses and the story is not primarily about the hunting of a monster, although it is about the creation of heroines.
The story is told from three perspectives in parallel. These tellings interact with one another in a way that makes truth something complex, agile and hard to fix in a single voice.
We hear from Tru, the younger sister who polio has left with a withered leg and constant pain, remembering her unquestioning belief in the stories her older sister told her of how the women in her family were fierce protectors who used magic to hunt monsters and her struggle to see this belief as anything other than a lie told to bolster the spirits of a crippled girl when her sister leaves home and sends back less than credible stories of her current life in a circus.
We get to read Od’s account of her childhood and the traumas in it that she used stories and will-power and intimacy to try and shelter her sister from and then we learn of the things that nearly destroyed her in the two years she was away from home.
The third perspective is the present-day (1908) story of Od reuniting with Tru and taking her on a monster hunt.
This is not a light-weight tale. It’s full of ugliness, pain and despair. None of it is exploitative but all of it is credible. It makes clear all the ways in which woman are vulnerable and how little support they have, except from each other.
It is also a tale of magic, not in the “clap your hands if you believe in fairies” kind of magic but the sort that you have to make for yourself by belief and courage and love.
There’s a lot in the book about people who have lost their magic, or at least their hope. Od tries to explain this to Tru by saying
“Life has a way of knocking the whimsy out of people, Tru.”
Yet as Od re-unites with Tru and starts to build up her courage again, she reaches a decision about the central choice the book asks readers to consider:
“I’d decided I’d rather be foolish than ordinary. I’d rather risk chasing monsters that might not exist, searching for a child I’m not meant to find, than to believe we’re nothing more than mundane characters, steeped in ordinary lives.”
By the end of the book, I could see that embracing the possibility of magic in our lives, of being and doing something more than the accommodating the inevitable and enduring the unacceptable is the first step to making ourselves magical. Magic is not used as a Get Out Of Jail Free card here. You can’t just click the heels of your ruby slippers together to make everything alright but, with work and courage and love you can become something better than who you’re being told to be even if you can’t become the Princess you dreamed of being when you were a child.
This is my first Cat Winters book but it won’t be my last. I like the way she makes me think and I love the way her characters see the reality of the world but don’t let themselves be entirely determined by its expectations and constraints.