Book Review: Sorceress, Celia Rees (2009)

February 25th, 2013 2:02 pm by Kelly Garbato

A satisfying conclusion to WITCH CHILD.

four out of five stars

Sorceress continues the story of Mary Nuttall/Newbury, a young Englishwoman who immigrated to the “New World” in 1659. Forced from her village after her grandmother is executed for practicing witchcraft, Mary’s mother sends her to America in the hopes that she’ll be safe from persecution. Stuck in the isolated settlement of Beulah, surrounded by Puritans so intractable in their beliefs that they proved unwelcome even in Salem, Mary’s existence grows increasingly perilous. Try as hard as she might to fit in, Mary is an outsider – and a young, intelligent, and independent female, at that – and when things start to go sideways, she proves the most convenient of scapegoats.

The story finds Mary where Witch Child left off: slowly dying of hypothermia and starvation in the forest surrounding Beulah, after having narrowly escaped the town’s religious authorities. A she-wolf comes to her in the middle of an especially harsh snowstorm, caring for Mary until the morning, when her friend Jaybird and his grandfather White Eagle come to her rescue. Thus begins a rather epic journey, beginning at The Cave of the Ancestors and ending many decades later, in Canada. Mary marries (Jaybird, in a terribly bittersweet romance) and gives birth to and adopts several children, one of whom she buries much too early; becomes a pupil to White Eagle and, in time, a respected healer in her own right; establishes a secret medicine society, still in existence to this day; and travels ever northward, trying in vain to stay ahead of the escalating tensions between indigenous peoples and the French and English settlers.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the colonialists she encounters who prove most threatening to Mary’s well-being: terrified of her skills and offended that she’d rather live with “savages” than her “own kind,” Mary is kidnapped not once, but twice. Whereas the French pirate Le Grand drugs, rapes, and threatens to sell or enslave her, the Mohawk warriors who seize her and her children adopt them into a village decimated by disease. Likewise, the English Captain Peterson attempts to “rescue” her from her Pennacook kin – by force.

For better or worse, the supernatural takes a much more prominent role here than in Witch Child. Whereas Mary’s sorcery remains ambiguous in the first book – is she really a witch, or are the townspeople mistaking her scientific skills and knowledge for black magic? – Sorceress unequivocally outs Mary as a witch. She can assume the guise of nonhuman animals; her mother and grandmother appear to her as a wolf and a hare, respectively; she has premonitions and experiences visions. Most importantly, the events which transpire in Sorceress are relayed by Mary’s spirit to her great- (great-great-great) granddaughter Agnes, a young woman who’s just coming into her own powers. Witch Child, in contrast, purported to be Mary’s diary, the pages of which were smuggled down through the generations stuffed in the batting of a colonial-era quilt: no supernatural explanation required. While I personally prefer the ambiguity, I think it was only really essential to the first part of the tale, inasmuch as it highlighted the Puritans’ prejudices and lack of objectivity.

Intertwined with Mary’s story are those of Agnes and Alison. Agnes, having recently left her home on a New York reservation for college – she wants to be an anthropologist, much to her Aunt M.’s chagrin – makes contact with Alison, Mary’s biographer, after reading Witch Child. Agnes suspects that Mary might be her ancestor, and together, she and Alison try to learn more about what became of Mary and her friends. Caught between two worlds, Agnes doesn’t quite feel like she belongs in either: whereas she longs for more than life on the reservation, at college she must deal with isolation born of casual racism. In some ways, this is reminiscent of Mary’s journey – except that, while Mary may have harbored some sympathy for the white settlers killed in King Philip’s War, by the end of the story there’s no doubt where she belongs.

The early scenes between Alison and Agnes are at times painfully boring; one chapter includes a car ride. Often I found myself wishing that Rees would spin the tale back to Mary. However, Agnes’s journey becomes increasingly compelling as it progresses; at the end, I found myself longing for a footnote or afterward about Agnes and her involvement in “the Mary project.” (The appended documents provide some insight on what became of the more prominent players in WITCH CHILD, including the town of Beulah itself.) Unfortunately, Alison remains a rather underdeveloped character, hard to care about one way or the other.

Through Agnes, Aunt M. raises a number of concerns about the handling (read: theft) of Native remains and artifacts, which are never really addressed once Agnes is given possession of Mary’s box. A missed opportunity, if you ask me.

All in all, Sorceress was a suspenseful – and at times painful – read. A must for those who enjoyed WITCH CHILD.

As an aside, I can’t help but notice that the book’s cover was changed for the 2009 paperback edition – in a move that looks suspiciously like whitewashing. (And I’m not the only one who thinks so.)

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Considering Agnes’s physical description in the book, which of the two models seems more appropriate?

“She had high cheekbones and clear features; strong brows and a straight nose above a wide, full mouth and a delicately rounded chin. Her skin was the color of clear wild honey. […] As she inclined her head in greeting, her long hair fell forward, soft and silky, as shiny as a raven’s wing. The eyes, though—the eyes were a surprise. They were as gray as the sky on a snowy winter’s day.” (pp. 28-29)

And:

“Agnes put her hand up, sweeping back her jet-black hair. She wore it long, past her shoulders. She was only eighteen, but already a few silver hairs were threading down from the parting. She would have a white streak there, just as her aunt had, and her grandmother before her. She frowned, thick dark brows drawing down.” (page 5)

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