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)
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.