I recently bought a copy of Celia Rees's Witch Child on a whim in a mini-spree from Better World Books. I had seen the book many times, and was absolutely in love with the cover, but for whatever reason (and it's still not clear in my mind) I was convinced that this book was going to disappoint me.
Maybe I've been burned too many times by pretty, pretty books that are really shitty, shitty. I don't know, I was just hesitant.
But since it was in the bargain bin at Better World Books, meaning I got as part of my 5 for $15 (free shipping!), and since I needed things to read for Helluva Halloween, I went ahead and got it.
I don't regret that decision.
Witch Child takes the form of a diary written by Mary Nuttal (claiming to be Mary Newbury). After her grandmother is killed for supposedly being a witch, Mary is sent to America to assume a new identity and sever all ties with her past, ties which may get her killed. She takes up with a colony of Puritans traveling to the New World, and soon finds a place among them. But she also finds herself the center of jealousies and scandals that will raise the question of witchcraft again, making her safety in the new world as questionable as it was in the old.
I was caught up in this story from the very beginning. Setting aside the "convenient" aspects of the story (the fact that the dialogue is fairly modern, which is explained away, and the fact that she always just happens to have access to her diary and recalls events w/ complete clarity, etc), Mary's voice was always engaging, and she was completely relatable and her story captivating. This is very readable. The language is simple and flows well. Mary is an admirable girl, raised to be strong and self-reliant, which is a dangerous thing to be as an English woman in the mid 1600s. She is smart and self-assured, a great role model for modern girls, but because independent women were seen as a threat, she lives in fear of the day that her world will crumble and the people around her turn on her.
This really brought home to me what freaks me out about humans. The witch trials have always fascinated me, and the truth is, Puritans freak me out. Seriously. Witch Child really demonstrated why this is. The idea of basically condemning people to death (in horrible, horrible ways) because of petty jealousies or to make them fall in line is terrifying to me. They turn on each other so quickly over everything, and it just snowballs. That mob mentality, which is always violent and always deadly, Freaks. Me. Out.
[Of course, this is partly because I am fairly convinced that I would have died -- I struggle to keep my big mouth shut. Or, I guess the problem is that I don't struggle enough.]
But Mary is a good person, and she helps where she can. She is strong and so, so young. But this will mean nothing if she angers the wrong person. The sense of danger is always present, and there is a tautness and tension to the story as a result.
There was an ambiguity to the story that I really liked as well. Mary herself believes that she is a witch. She never does any sort of conjuring or casts any spells, she never actively does anything to earn the label witch. But raised in the woods by her talented and independent grandmother, who she believes must have had some powers, Mary believes that she, too, must have powers in turn. Strange things do happen on occasion, but because Mary is not some cloak-wearing, midnight-forest-traveling, familiar-petting "witch", there is a nice ambiguity to the story where you can view Mary how you wish. Does Mary really have some kind of power? Or is she just a smart, capable and intuitive young girl?
There is also ambiguity in the way the story ends, and though I was a little irritated at my copy for having an excerpt of the sequel, Sorceress, because that ruined some of the ambiguity of the ending, it was still kind of nice to know that I can continue Mary's story.
My advice? Pick up a copy of Witch Child and a mug of tea. This is the perfect story for the season, especially if you want something more on the human side, and less on the gore-fest side.
Short and sweet today. Just a few things I want to mention or point you in the direction of:
One is Witch Child's website. Rees talks about her inspiration and the witch hunts. Pretty nifty.
National Geographic (my gods!) has this interactive section about the Salem witch hunts. Gotta love NatGeo.
Also, for some supplemental material, check out this Salem site that has info on the actual trials.
Or read some eyewitness accounts to the trials. Crazy.
Or you can check out the book The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, a look into the social, religious and gender constructs that shaped the witch hunts.
There is also the Salem Witch Trials page with sections on the accused, accusers, transcripts, etc.
(doesn't all this true historical supplememental material make you think this would be a great classroom read? Me too.)
I've also got a little video for you that someone put together about the hunts, but first I want to mention a documentary I saw on PBS (might love PBS more than NatGeo -- it's a close call sometimes), that looked into the Witch Trials and investigated the idea that it may have been a case of mass hysteria caused by ergot poisoning from tainted rye (in case you were wondering, the hallucinogenic LSD is a derivative of ergot). All this craziness from some bad bread. Scary.