It’s 1989. Peppy chants can’t lift the spirits of Danvers High School’s women’s varsity field hockey team after a disastrous 2-8 season. They engage in the dark arts of their city’s Salem Witch Trial heritage, scribbling in a notebook emblazoned with Emilio Estevez’s image, cutting armbands from sweat socks and making offerings to an “alternative god.” Their goal? State championships. Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks asks whether change and success are attributed to a higher power or sheer, collective friendship and determination. The comedic, poignant, at times painful tale sets the team’s 10 girls and lone male player up against opponents, an intrepid student journalist pursuing an expose and their personal struggles along their paths to growing up.

Barry establishes a genuine sense of camaraderie among her cast, telling their tale through a “we” point of view that no singular person commands. At times it will narrow to focus on one teammate, but the collective voice stands by to comment. It’s this unified narrative plus the supposed telepathic bond they develop that uncover truths and insights about each of them that their compatriots didn’t know, strengthening their bond.

The team’s pregame ritual also brings them together as one while they dance unrobed around a fire under full moon light, imbibe and smoke to teenage highs and offer “sacrifices.” When their mothers converge during their last rout after a salacious tip by their journalist rival, each member is forced to confront their individual troubles, ultimately pushing them forward as their own selves with their friends’ support, while laid literally and figuratively bare before them.

Their efforts to “recharge” the Emilio notebook’s “power” with bad behavior throughout their season also tie them together. What starts with flashing teachers escalates to vehicular damage and holding other students at gunpoint to vandalize the school. Horrified, their captain Abby takes action to determine what’s actually driving their winning streak, waiting 30 years later when they reconvene to admit the truth and the authority they held over their destiny all along.

Though Barry establishes a kinship among her protagonists, it feels like she shortchanged some of their development to fit into a crammed 370-page book. They could each be prescribed a trope like It Girl, Peppy Team Leader, Ms. Perfect, etc. with varying levels of fleshing out beyond a few traits. Some feel one note except for choice intimate, humanizing moments and can be confused for each other if a reader isn’t attentive. Korean-born Sue’s ever-changing, fruit-flavored haircolor and concerted efforts not to be a “brainy” stereotype pigeonhole her as the rebellious, purple-haired Asian character that’s gained notoriety in entertainment media. She doesn’t seem properly realized until her past of being bullied for being foreign and her burgeoning thespian dreams are revealed.

Other characters beg for their own stories but are constrained by the theme of oneness overarching IWe RideI. AJ, one of the minorities on the team and in an ethnically homogenous school, grapples with the white supremacist culture she terms “Americitis” that fuels her black rage, while wondering if her rich upbringing negates her authenticity. Boy Cory, the literal odd man out, interrogates his sexual and gender identity through dalliances with male and female peers, knowing he’ll never be a red-blooded, All-American son. Meek, sheltered and deeply Catholic Julie’s evolution into daring, self-actualized Julie Minh feels the most fulfilling; while Jen deciding to be more than her trademark “Claw” hairstyle and rise above her self-imposed pressure to be champion-caliber and popular in school probably comes second.

Barry imbues her tome with an absurdity and candor that touches on a spectrum of emotions. The collective narrators as adults examining their formative years under theirs and their children’s cultural microscopes brings to light generational differences – some frightening – and adds notes of self-awareness and intelligence. The novel may suffer from content overload, but it brims with an undeniable warmness and charm that makes readers root for its misfit teens ambling into adulthood, hockey know-how or lack thereof be darned.

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