Book Review: Witch Child, Celia Rees (2000)

February 4th, 2013 3:39 pm by Kelly Garbato

“Words have power. These are mine.”

four out of five stars

Mary Nuttall was just sixteen years old when her grandmother Eliza – the only family she’d ever known – was murdered. Accused of practicing witchcraft, the old woman was tortured, stripped naked, bound, and “floated” – tossed into a river to sink or swim. Her buoyancy taken as a sure sign of guilt, Eliza was pulled from the water only so that she could be hanged in public. Once trusted to heal their loved ones, Eliza’s friends and neighbors in this rural English town proved eager witnesses to her execution.

Rescued from similar persecution by her long-lost mother, Mary is sent away to the “New World” in search of a better life. She’s to travel with a group of Puritans bound for Salem, where they’ll join their brethren and pastor. Upon arrival, the group is dismayed to discover that their kin have moved on, to the isolated town of Beulah. After much deliberation they decide to follow, forging ahead into the wilderness with two Natives – of the Pennacook tribe – acting as their guides.

Unsurprisingly, Beulah couldn’t be further from the safe haven Mary’s mother envisioned for her child. Ruled by a Puritan preacher so strict and demanding that he proved unwelcome in Salem, Mary is in constant danger, just by virtue of being a newcomer to the community. Though she tries hard to stay under the radar, her “transgressions,” real and imagined – which include befriending members of the opposite sex; spending time alone in the forest to gather food and herbs; harboring anything more than uncharitable thoughts about the “heathen” natives; and proficiency in transcription – don’t escape the notice of Reverend Johnson. When items suggestive of witchcraft are discovered in the forest and several of the town’s teenage girls start exhibiting strange behavior, Mary’s worst fears are realized.

All of this we learn from Mary’s journal, which spans roughly a year from 1659-1660. Urged to burn it by her protector/surrogate mother Martha – its opening sentences (“I am Mary. I am a witch.”) alone being sure proof of guilt – Mary instead hides its pages inside a quilt. Discovered more than three hundred years later by one “Alison Ellman” (one of Mary’s descendents, perhaps), Mary’s journal stands testament to the horrors she and her kind endured.

In Witch Child, Celia Rees has created a work of historical fiction that’s perhaps more honest about the misogyny, racism, and religious bigotry of the time than are many high school textbooks. Women who threaten the patriarchal power structure – those who have special skills or knowledge, such as healing or above average literacy, or who are independent and live outside the bounds of marriage – are threatened with the specter of witchcraft to ensure compliance. Likewise, Puritan attitudes about the native inhabitants of the land are every bit as cruel and barbaric as they accuse the indigenous people of being. Where Reverend Johnson sees the land that will become Beulah and thinks that God has set it aside especially for him, Jaybird and White Eagle recognize it as the summering lands of their people, cleared and cultivated by them and ransacked and stolen by the Puritans while it lay vacant in the winter.

Chilling and captivating, Witch Child is suitable for readers young and old. Though the story drags a little at the beginning – the slowest part being the voyage – the pace picks up once the colonists reach America. While the reader has a vague idea of how the story will end (Mary must survive to have at least one child), this doesn’t detract from the feeling of suspense and urgency. In fact, Mary’s narrative ends rather suddenly, in a jarring conclusion that left me wanting more. Luckily, there’s a sequel (Sorceress) – which I ordered not a half hour after finishing Witch Child.

Trigger warnings for copious amounts of racism, misogyny, and speciesism. In particular, the scene in which Mary sees the whales for the first time broke my heart. Her friend Jack’s reaction to this magnificent sight?

“’One day, I mean to hunt them.’ He mimed picking up a harpoon and flinging it over the side. ‘I mean to have my own ship and I will hire men to go after them, for they are here in abundance and there is great wealth to be made from them….’ […] Maybe it was the sea glittering beneath him, but his eyes seemed full of coins.” (page 78)

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