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Celt's Garden - Hamster Reviews "The Witch of Hebron"

Lemme start with letting my alter ego, Hamster, review the narrative in the style of my fellow Vanderbilt alumnus, Joe Bob Biggs of "Joe Bob Goes to the Drive In" fame, then the geek engineer can get to appropriate technology. Breasts: 12 (I think, I lost count), dead bodies: I definitely lost count; gallons ketchup: 17; corpse in the onion wagon; special points for panther mauling; sword fu; pistol whipping fu; head pounding fu amid chaos in brothel; goat butchery; horse appreciation; very professional hypnotism; psychic prediction; sex therapy; sneaking suspicion that the first person narrator of the first book, "World Made by Hand" was not telling the whole story, in his folksy way; not PG pocket rocket scenes: 2; and and a whole bunch of folks walking around dressed as we are Amish if you please, we are Amish if you don't please and knocking back the home brew. The 11 year old gets all the best lines. Hamster says check it out.

By James Howard Kunstler, the patron curmudgeon of peak oil and author of some excellent books on urban design which didn't cause him nearly as much fame and commotion as "World Made by Hand".

The appropriate technology is spot on, as it was in the first book. Kunstler's starting point is a salvage society in a world of zero oil and social isolation from the larger world outside Washington County, New York. There is an early scene which explains why it is whole a lot easier to produce mechanical power from a water wheel than electrical power. The water wheel can produce a lot of torque for direct mechanical take off. You can do it with wood or bamboo if you have to. Electricity requires wires and enough parts to make an alternator, not easily fabricated.

The appropriate technology serves as a background for the narrative. I liked the way that Kunstler stuck with his premise and built on our existing knowledge of the material world. There are no magic undiscovered analgesic herbs or miraculous new energy sources. The herbalism is totally solid. One of the characters makes wine from wild grapes flavored with sweet woodruff to cut the foxy flavor. In the Northeast, there's a disease that attacks European wine grapes. It's controlled by spraying. (It's also why California is such great wine country.) Native grapes are unaffected, and that's how wine fans describe the flavor of the wine, "foxy". Sweet woodruff is still used in Germany to flavor country wines. It grows easily in the herb garden around here.

The characters eat cornbread because a virus has made it impossible to grow wheat in the area. That is all too close to true. Wheat stem blight went through the Northeast once already, about a century ago. Ug99, a new race of wheat stem blight that came out of Uganda in 1999, has already severely affected crops in Africa, Kazakhstan and Iran. Stem rust is the heavy stuff. Wheat leaf rust, which varies in its effects depending on variety, was all over the U.S. this year.

Two of the characters make extensive use of hypnotism, although it only appears in a medical context in sex therapy. Ones of my friends, a doctor turned engineer, used to say that 50% of medicine is in people's heads. That's the 50% that hypnotism works on. He described using hypnotism for battlefront surgery when they ran out of anesthesia. The 11 year old hasn't mastered that one in the book, but give him a few years.

The low tech appendectomy scene is just what the village doctor would do in a pinch in the jungle: opium up the rectum for anesthesia, straight razor for a scalpel, kitchen table for the operation, gut guitar string for stitches, keep everything as clean as you can with boiling water and home made brandy. If you have a notion, read or watch (courtesy of PBS) "One Thousand Gold Coins", which is based on the true story of a Chinese girl in a 19th century gold mining camp in Idaho. She pulled a lead bullet out of her boyfriend with her crochet hook, sterilized in whiskey. If anything, Kunstler's background assumptions are conservative. The real Chinese pharmacist in the mining camp knew how to make penicillin from moldy bread.

There's more, but have fun reading it and try not to let Kunstler pull your chain. He's a great one for pulling people's chains. No doubt the commotion sells books.

Additional note: there is a person on this site who goes by the name of "Hamster", a fine choice of nom de screen but no relation. Hamster is the name I use to comment on other people's blogs out on the internet. There are other Hamsters out there, but I'm the only one who is me.

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Comment by Celt M. Schira on November 11, 2010 at 9:50am
A reader commented that reviewing a book as if it is a B-movie is confusing. Good point. "The Witch of Hebron" is a gory Western with supernatural elements. Although it contains many plausible social elements (creepily familiar social elements, since they come from history) it's a story, not "Professor Kunstler looks in his crystal ball and describes the future" or a Ph.D. thesis on "Emerging Social Cohesion: Lessons from Rwanda, Yugoslavia and the American West." You bet. Pass the popcorn.
The background setting comes out of Kunstler's 2005 non-fiction book, "The Long Emergency", which is about overreach and excess complexity in the way we organize our society to meet our basic needs. My inner geek engineer loves the appropriate technology in the novel, all the home made matches and gravity fed water systems and suchforth.
Fun as it is to read about salvage engineering and appropriate technology from fiction, just as it is more fun to get a dose of 19th century British military history from the meticulously researched Flashman novels than from some scholarly tome, Kunstler's novel is not "future history". Right-o. Back to gardening.
Comment by Celt M. Schira on November 9, 2010 at 6:18pm
David, thank you for submitting it to the Energy Bulletin. "Everybody's famous for 15 minutes". It could even generate some visibility for all the great things folks are doing here in Hamsterland.
Comment by David MacLeod on November 9, 2010 at 5:42pm
Comment by Celt M. Schira on November 9, 2010 at 9:23am
Walter, that's a great story!

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