Book Review: Sorceress, Celia Rees (2009)

Monday, February 25th, 2013

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.

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Book Review: Witch Child, Celia Rees (2000)

Monday, February 4th, 2013

“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.

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