The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow
Just in time for Halloween, Alyssa Palombo presents The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel, a retelling of the legend of Katrina Van Tassel, lover of Ichabod Crane, and victim of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow, New York.
This telling takes on the cast of a romantic tragedy. When itinerant schoolmaster Ichabod Crane moves into the Van Tassel home for the school year, the music teacher and the daughter of the house find they have much in common; open minds, and a love of education, words, and music. When Ichabod promises to give Katrina voice lessons, love begins to blossom between them. Soon he’s expanding her knowledge of English, and she’s demonstrating her love of Shakespeare to him, and they’re sneaking away for forbidden trysts. But Katrina’s father will never approve of her marrying a simple schoolteacher and tries to aim her in the direction of Brom Bones – aka Bron Van Brunt – the town’s darling and one of Katrina’s childhood chums. Brom has done something Katrina can never forgive to her best friend Charlotte Jansen – a practicing herbalist and midwife occasionally accused of witchcraft – and though everyone pressures her to marry him, she cannot contemplate it. The love affair between Katrina and Ichabod becomes more obvious, and as a result the rivalry between Brom and Ichabod grows in intensity, and comes to violence.
Then that horrible Halloween party happens, and Ichabod disappears upon learning a deep secret of Katrina’s. When he doesn’t resurface, rumors that the Headless Horsemen did him in filter through the town and begin to poison the lives of the townspeople. In despair, Katrina turns to her most hated foe to secure safety and security for one dear to her. To escape her new marriage – and to find out what happened to Ichabod – she turns to Charlotte, and together the two women begin searching for the truth about the schoolmaster’s disappearance. What will they find?
The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel is less a story of the supernatural and more a story about the weight of lost love, the pain of secrets, and the sweetness of forbidden attraction. Palumbo does a fine job weaving a spell around the reader; all of her characters feel well-rounded, and like people of their time period.
Katrina is flawed and bold, and her headstrong nature leads to her biggest problems. She’s understandable and relatable as a purely flawed heroine. Palombo’s version of Ichabod makes him the kind of sex symbol not connected with the character since Johnny Depp’s performance in the movie Sleepy Hollow; it’s easy to fall in love with him as Katrina does. Bron, meanwhile, is Disney’s Gaston incarnated all over again in the form of a farmer, though he does have tender moments of humanity that help make him more than a two-dimensional ogre. This is also the case with Katrina’s disapproving parents.
Charlotte is an interesting puzzlement, the classic herbalist-who’s-accused of witchery; only Charlotte has a passel of somewhat stock supernatural talents, from prophetic tarot card readings to brewing herbs that can induce visions to literally having premonitions of the future. The titular spellbook belongs more to Charlotte than Katrina in the end, and one actually wants to learn more of her, and her romance with Ichabod’s cousin. Her friendship with Katrina is fraught with complexities that are quite intriguing.
The book makes vague stabs at trying to talk about the issues of the day – the Salem Witch Trials of the century before get a passing mention, as do George Washington’s presidency and the separation of the country into Federalism and Republicanism, followed by John Adam’s election. The story takes a few stabs at making statements about slavery by exploring the contrasting attitudes of its characters, and also inserting a poignant but also somewhat unnecessary side story involving Katrina and her maid, Nancy. But the main focus is on the mystery surrounding Ichabod’s disappearance, which – sadly – is not much of a true mystery. Readers will likely easily pick up context clues much earlier in the book than the plot needs you to. Whether the killer is really supernatural or just posing as a supernatural entity, I will leave the reader to discover.
Overall, The Spellbook of Katrina Von Tassel is a fine but imperfect, and happily somewhat feminist, take on the woman at the center of Washington Irving’s tale. The romance will transport you, even if the long, sad aftermath leaves you with a hangover.
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