I seem to be having a ‘colonial New England’ sort of summer. First, I read (and enjoyed) Ghost Hawk, and then I noticed Witch Child sitting on a stall at a booksale, unloved, and I decided to bring it home. It’s not a new book – my edition bears the proud publication date of 2000 on its fly page – but it was well worth the purchase price.
This book tells the story of Mary Newbury, a mid-seventeenth century girl of about sixteen. It is framed within a clever narrative structure – the book purports to be an academic study, with a prologue and epilogue written in the voice of a woman who is doing research into Mary’s life, and I really enjoyed that aspect of it. The entire novel (excepting this prologue and epilogue) takes the form of a diary, written by Mary, which has survived almost four centuries, and its first-hand, primary-source feeling pervades the story. From the outset, Mary tells us she is a witch, or that she is believed to be – which amounts to much the same thing. She lives with her grandmother, who is accused of witchcraft and executed at the novel’s opening; after this, she is taken in by a benefactor who arranges, hastily, for her to be sent to America on board an emigrant ship as part of a group of Puritans escaping religious persecution. She goes, both because she knows she has no choice, and because there is nothing for her to go home to. Her sense of loss is palpable, and her memories of her grandmother are poignant, catching her by surprise at points through her tale, just like grief is wont to do.
On board the ship she meets and becomes close to a middle-aged woman named Martha, who becomes a sister-mother figure to her, as well as an apothecary and his son whose fates become linked with hers. Others among the Puritans are not so friendly, but Mary tries to keep to herself, hiding her diary from prying eyes despite the fact that her literacy, and her ‘fair hand’, draw a lot of unwelcome attention. She is aware of the tinderbox nature of the living arrangements – not only are the passengers living on top of one another, but she understands that the merest sniff of any connection to witchcraft will spell her doom, and everyone seems to be hyper-aware of it; Mary therefore lives in fear of being ‘found out.’ She also becomes close to one of the young sailors on board, which is met with disapproval and questioning by some of her fellow emigrants, and this theme – that of the strictures of Mary’s life restricting her carefree nature – recurs throughout the novel. When the emigrants eventually arrive in New England, they do not find the rapturous welcome they expected, and they face into their first winter with no crops, no homes and the knowledge that they must make a long journey inland, during which they will be dependent on their Native guides for survival.
I really enjoyed so much about this book, including Mary as a character, of course, as well as Martha, and the realities of their lives in England, on board the ship and also in the New World. Celia Rees’ writing is rich and detailed, and Mary’s voice is wonderful. I felt the pain of her loss, the fear of her voyage and the bittersweet nature of her feelings for Jack, the young sailor, and when her ability to write brings her into the circle of the creepy Reverend, I felt my flesh crawl at the fate I felt sure was laid out for her. I also loved the secondary characters of the apothecary and his son, and how their plots intertwined with Mary’s. There is also a fascinating interplay between the young women of the colony, inspired by the real-life Salem witch trials of course, but which is also so much a part of any group of young women forced to live together in a highly pressured, unnatural environment where their only means of advancement lies in finding a husband. I thought this aspect of the novel was handled very well, and at several points I read with my breath held.
Where the book wasn’t as strong, for me, was in its depiction of its Native American characters. They are portrayed quite stereotypically, albeit extremely positively, but I felt the story skimmed over them as people rather simplistically, seeing them solely in terms of their ethnicity. As with Ghost Hawk, the horrors of the interactions between the settlers and the Native population, as well as the terrible treatment meted out by the Puritans on one another, is a strong (and strongly handled) theme here, one which I found wrenching and engaging to read. I loved the issues surrounding women and their agency, literacy, and power which the book raises, and I thought the means by which Mary’s journal is saved (through being stuffed inside a quilt) was fascinating due to the history of quilt-making as a ‘feminine art.’
I am interested in the history of witchcraft and witch-trials anyway, and this book definitely fed into those interests, but it’s also an excellent story, well told, which should appeal to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. It’s not a ‘typical’ YA novel, so don’t let that put you off! If this book is new to you, I’d say give it a go – and don’t forget to let me know what you think.