“Toil & Trouble” by Augusten Burroughs
c.2019, St. Martin’s Press
Halloween is over this year, but not for you.
Your decorations are still up because the season is young. There’s plenty of time left for skeletons, monsters, and winds that howl like a banshee. You can still hear spirits high-stepping in your upstairs. Most important of all: as in the new book, Toil & Trouble by Augusten Burroughs, witches walk among us.
At just 8 years old, Augusten Burroughs learned that he was a witch.
Riding the bus home from school, he’d had the sudden realization that something happened to his grandmother; he knew without knowing, saw without seeing, and he rushed to his mother in a panic. Matter-of-factly, she calmed him; she was a witch, too, and had sensed that her younger son had the “Gift.”
“It was the strongest bond my mother and I had when I was young…” Burroughs says.
Most people think of Hollywood magic or crones on brooms when they think of witches but those are just myths, he says. The truth comes in three parts: witches have existed for as long as have humans. They’ve “always been misunderstood.” And yes, “witches are real,” and each is a little different, as Burroughs learned when his Aunt Curtis (a witch) introduced him to a root woman (another witch) who told him something about his future.
Witchcraft isn’t perfect, though. It didn’t help much while Burroughs was bullied as a boy. Sometimes, spells took longer to work than he hoped they might. It isn’t for revenge or hurtful purposes, although there is a way to influence how things turn out and patience is key. “Magick” worked when he wanted to move from Manhattan to his beloved New England; it didn’t work when he wanted to talk to a friend on the phone. It warned him of a possibly bad situation near his new home, but there were no details. It helps find lost objects, but not lost confidence.
And when his magick went missing as his husband fell seriously ill, Burroughs learned that “Things are not as they appear. They are much, much more.”
When starting Toil & Trouble, you could be forgiven for thinking that Burroughs is pulling your leg. He does, after all, write with humor and this witch stuff is conjured, right? Isn’t it?
After a few more pages, it won’t matter. You’ll be so engrossed by this tale of the magick of life and so caught up in the stories Burroughs tells, that witchcraft really becomes no big deal, no less normal than blue eyes or brown hair. And while it’s the main reason for this book and everything attached to it, it’s more of a magically delightful, meaningful backdrop for tales of family, growing up gay, falling in love with a man, finding home, and forgiveness.
Toil & Trouble is not a dark-and-stormy-night kind of book, and it won’t make you jumpy. There are, however, a few hair-raising pages that’ll make you squirm but mostly, it’s funny and sweet and charming, a cauldron full of goodness.