The Barnes & Noble Review
YA author Celia Rees serves up a history lesson and a bewitching tale of suspense with Witch Child, the story of a young woman's struggles to survive amidst the witch mania that besieged 17th-century civilizations on both sides of the Atlantic. The story unfolds from the pages of a centuries-old diary, purportedly found hidden inside an old quilt. In a lead-in to the tale, Rees provides just enough manufactured manifest for this diary to lend it a realistic feel. The diary's author, a 15-year-old Englishwoman named Mary Newbury, grabs her readers' attention with a vengeance from the very first page, where she details her grandmother's arrest and subsequent execution for the crime of witchcraft.
Unlike some of the innocents who fell victim to this 17th-century hysteria, Mary readily admits to being a witch -- at least within the confines of her diary -- and is rescued from suffering a fate similar to her grandmother's by a mysterious female benefactor who ushers her unto a ship sailing for the New World. Mary hopes the change of venue will provide an escape from the sort of rigid intolerance that caused her grandmother's death, but rumors of witchcraft seem to follow her wherever she goes. The horrific onboard conditions and several at-sea disasters trigger witch paranoia among Mary's fellow sea travelers and, when the surviving passengers finally arrive in Salem, Mary quickly discovers that the lifestyle and the settlers in this New World are even more rigid and intolerant than those she left behind.
Adding to the danger of witch hunts and Mary's unfortunate tendency to attract unwanted attention are the day-to-day struggles for survival; starvation, disease, and deplorable living conditions are no strangers here. But while the era may be different, the lifestyle harder, and the stakes higher, young Mary's adolescent struggles with peer pressure, self-discovery, and self-actualization carry a timeless appeal that will easily cross the centuries to modern-day teens. (Beth Amos)
Early March, 1659. I am Mary. I am a witch. Thus begins the diary of Mary Newbery. The woman she knows as Grandmother has been tried and is to be hung as a witch. Mary, rescued by a strange gentlewoman with hauntingly familiar gray eyes, is given a new identity and safe passage with Puritans leaving England for the New World. Martha, an older widow, takes Mary under her wing. Like Grandmother, she has a healer's touch and seems instinctively to know Mary's hidden secrets, but trouble follows Mary. At sea, the Northern Lights appear, an ominous sign, and the ship drifts far north. Arriving in Salem, the group finds their predecessors have traveled far into the wilderness to settle. Mary's differences are harder to conceal in the small, tight-knit group where she is already suspect as an outsider. When some Puritan girls are caught playing at witchcraft, they must find a scapegoat to blame, and Mary is the perfect candidate. Mary's diary ends in October, 1660, as she again flees for her life. All the formulaic characters are here: a withered old witch hunter, the hysterical group of girls, an inflexible parson, a kindly older woman, and the respected family who lends support. This passable book lacks the tension of Kathryn Lasky's Beyond the Burning Time. Nevertheless the cover shot of a girl's face will draw readers, and the novel is sure to be popular with fans of the genre. VOYA CODES: 3Q 4P M J (Readable without serious defects;Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). Reviewer: Roxy Ekstrom
The Puritans were obsessed with witches, it seems, and it didn't start in Salem, Massachusetts. Rees begins her narrative in England, with the torture and execution of Mary's grandmother. A strange woman comes to rescue Mary and sees to her removal with a group of Puritans going to the new world. Mary starts her journal with the provocative statement, "I am a witch. Or so some would call me." Mary is an unusual young woman, wise, skilled in herbal remedies taught to her by her grandmother. She and the older woman Martha, a midwife and healer, chose to continue into the wilderness once they disembark in Boston in 1689. They settle in a new town north of Boston on the Merrimack River, accompanied by a man, Jonah, who studies plants and their remedies; and so the three together are healers. These arts clash with some of the Puritan beliefs, which are mostly cast in the worldview that a just God and a wily Devil are in constant struggle for the hearts and minds of each individual. The Devil and evil spirits are everywhere and witches are the instruments of the Devil. The small community is filled with strict rules, which are revealed as Mary tells her story in her journal. Mary likes to decide for herself what is good and what is evil. She is fascinated by the vast forest that surrounds the community and she sneaks away, changing into boy's clothes, meeting a Native American boy and his grandfather, who help her find and identify plants that can be used in healing. She is a person who wants to think for herself, which puts her into danger, real danger, in a Puritan community. It is just a matter of time before she is named a witch. YA literature has other novels and nonfiction about theplight of witches in Puritan societyin fact one of the early YA novels is The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Rees's journal format is effectively dramatic. She successfully conveys Mary's own confusion as to what is witchcraft and what is not, reflecting the historical reality of what a young woman would think raised among Puritans. The cover art is magnetic, the face of an intense young woman with wisdom mixed with sorrow in her eyes. KLIATT Codes: JSRecommended for junior and senior high school students. Reviewer: Claire Rosser; September 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 5)
With shades of The Blair Witch Project, this book, Witch Child, purports to be the recently discovered diary of a 17th century teen accused of witchcraft. The catch is that Mary really IS a witch, but not an evil one; she has to hide her powers, though, lest she be tortured and killed. When Mary escapes to America, she finds that the folks of Massachusetts are no more tolerant than the English villagers who killed her grandmother. But the book's real catch is that Mary herself isn't real. Like Blair Witch, the story is fiction passed off as fact, complete with an afterword that requests information about those 17th century families, and provides an e-mail address for quick contact. If your kids don't believe this story is made-up, have them check the front of the book, with its "juvenile fiction" classification. But don't discourage them from reading the book, a sometimes grim but ultimately satisfying read that proves the devil really is in the details. The author is skillful in her depiction of the pious paranoia of both the Old World and the New, and of the struggle and privation that was life in the 17th century. 2000, Candlewick Press, $15.99. Ages 12 up. Reviewer: Donna Freedman
School Library Journal
Gr 5-9-Journal entries, found and pieced together from pages stitched inside a 17th-century quilt, are said to be the basis of this captivating tale. As her grandmother is executed as a witch by English village folk, Mary Newbury is abducted by a wealthy woman and shipped off to America. During the long, difficult journey, she makes friends with some of the other Puritan emigrants, finding an older woman to draw her into the community. They join other followers of the Reverend Elias Cornwall to travel to a newly established village deep in the Massachusetts wilderness where their very survival is threatened, not only by the harsh physical conditions, but also, the villagers believe, by savage Native Americans and the presence of the devil among them. The healing skills Mary learned from her grandmother make her useful, but also a target for suspicion. She is befriended by a Native American boy who accepts without question the supernatural talents she must hide from her community. When, inevitably, the village turns against her, she escapes to the woods. There is no more to the story in this volume, but eager readers who visit the accompanying Web site will learn that a sequel is forthcoming. While the quilt premise is an obvious ploy, the historical setting is sound and well developed, and Mary is an entirely believable character. Readers already captivated by stories such as Ann Rinaldi's Break with Charity or Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond will not want to miss this one.-Kathleen Isaacs, Edmund Burke School, Washington, DC Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
After watching her grandmother hang for being a witch, Mary journeys to the New World only to discover that human nature's desire to blame another is not limited to 17th-century England. Unlike most stories about people accused of sorcery, Mary freely admits to her gift, one that offers pain with its limited power. Mary's intelligence and openness to the world around her, along with a distinct distrust of the omnipresent religious fervor provide the narrator with immense appeal. There's objectivity to the diary entries about her journey to Massachusetts among a group of Pilgrims and her hard work of settling in a new land. She freely enjoys the company of a young sailor, gets to know the native guides, and appreciates the healing powers of plants. Equally, she recognizes the frivolity and conceit of others in the party and the arrogance and selfishness of the leader who claims to speak for God. When trouble arises, whether in England or in the colonies, some are quick to blame the Devil and his spawn, the witch. Luckily, Mary finds some good people who cling to logic even amid their religious allegiance or who lack that mindset of blind devotion. This diary is eerily given fake credibility by a single-page prologue and an afterword that describe the provenance of the pages and call for further information from readers, an unnecessary gimmick. The tightrope that Mary walks as an outsider in her society is a dangerous one, and the suspense tightens as events unfold. The text is haunting despite a lack of antiquity in the language. Perhaps wisely, Rees forgoes emphasizing historical or theological accuracy and instead focuses on providing immediate characters. With its theme of religious intolerance and its touches of the supernatural, this is sure to be in high demand for a long time. (Fiction. 11-14)
Read an Excerpt
The following manuscript comes from a remarkable collection of documents termed "the Mary papers." Found hidden inside a newly discovered and extremely rare quilt from the colonial period, the papers seem to take the form of an irregularly kept journal or diary. All dates are guesswork, based on references within the text. The first entries are tentatively dated from March 1659. I have altered the original as little as possible, but punctuation, paragraphing, and spellings have been standardized for the modern reader.
1. Early March 1659
I am a witch. Or so some would call me. "Spawn of the Devil," "Witch child," they hiss in the street, although I know neither father nor mother. I know only my grandmother, Eliza Nuttall; Mother Nuttall to her neighbors. She brought me up from a baby. If she knew who my parents are, she never told me.
"Daughter of the Erl King and the Elfen Queen, that's who you are."
We live in a small cottage on the very edge of the forest; Grandmother, me, and her cat and my rabbit. Lived. Live there no more.
Men came and dragged her away. Men in black coats and hats as tall as steeples. They skewered the cat on a pike; they smashed the rabbit's skull by hitting him against the wall. They said that these were not God's creatures but familiars, the Devil himself in disguise. They threw the mess of fur and flesh on to the midden and threatened to do the same to me, to her, if she did not confess her sins to them.
They took her away then.
She was locked in the keep for more than a week. First they "walked" her, marching her up and down, up and down between them for a day and a night until she could no longer hobble, her feet all bloody and swollen. She would not confess. So they set about to prove she was a witch. They called in a woman, a Witch Pricker, who stabbed my grandmother all over with long pins, probing for the spot that was numb, where no blood ran, the place where the familiars fed. The men watched as the woman did this, and my grandmother was forced to stand before their gloating eyes, a naked old lady, deprived of modesty and dignity, the blood streaming down her withered body, and still she would not confess.
They decided to "float" her. They had plenty of evidence against her, you see. Plenty. All week folk had been coming to them with accusations. How she had overlooked them, bringing sickness to their livestock and families; how she had used magic, sticking pins in wax figures to bring on affliction; how she had transformed herself and roamed the country for miles around as a great hare and how she did this by the use of ointment made from melted corpse fat. They questioned me, demanding, "Is this so?"
She slept in the bed next to me every night, but how do I know where she went when sleep took her?
It was all lies. Nonsense and lies.
These people accusing her, they were our friends, our neighbors. They had gone to her, pleading with her for help with beasts and children, sick or injured, a wife nearing her time. Birth or death, my grandmother was asked to be there to assist in the passage from one world to the next, for she had the skill -- in herbs, potions, in her hands -- but the power came from inside her, not from the Devil. The people trusted her, or they had until now; they had wanted her presence.
They were all there for the swimming, standing both sides of the river, lining the bridge, staring down at the place, a wide pool where the water showed black and deep. The men in tall hats dragged my grandmother from the stinking hole where they had been keeping her. They cross-bound her, tying her right toe to her left thumb and vice versa, making sure the cords were thin and taut. Then they threw her in. The crowd watched in silence, the only sound the shuffle of many feet edging forward to see what she would do.
The chant started with just one person remarking, in a quiet voice almost of wonder, then it spread from one to another until all were shouting, like some monstrous howling thing. To float was a sure proof of guilt. They hooked her, pulling her back to shore like a bundle of old washing. They did not want her drowning, because that would deprive them of a hanging.
Witch Child. Copyright © 2001 Celia Rees. Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA. Published by arrangement with Bloomsbury Publishing plc.