Thursday 30 May 2013

Witch Child by Celia Rees

Synopsis from Goodreads: Welcome to the world of young Mary Newbury, a world where simply being different can cost a person her life. Hidden until now in the pages of her diary, Mary's startling story begins in 1659, the year her beloved grandmother is hanged in the public square as a witch. Mary narrowly escapes a similar fate only to face intolerance and new danger among the Puritans in the New World. How long can she hide her true identity? Will she ever find a place where her healing powers will not be feared? 


If I were to centre a book display in the library I work in on themes such as prejudice, ignorance and discrimination, Witch Child would be included. A work of fiction posing as primary source material discovered in the folds of a 300 year old handcrafted quilt, Witch Child is a story brimming with intrigue and mystery. I like how it is presented as a factual diary; making 14 year old Mary's plight seem all the more real. Imagine coming across such a find...

There are no scenes of actual sorcery in the story and neither did I expect any. It is about how women healers such as Mary and her grandmother were persecuted by society and their skills massively misunderstood. Why? Why were they wiped out on such a huge scale across Europe and North America from roughly 1480 to 1750, 'spanning the upheavals of the Reformation and the Thirty Years' War, resulting in an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 executions'? [1]

"Those that can heal can harm; those that can cure can kill."

You can probably sense my temptation to delve into the subject at great length, but I shall spare you the digression. I love it, though, when a work of fiction makes me research and become more aware of a period in history.

The story is set in 1659 and during this period people believed the devil walked abroad, as it were. Anything out of place was a sign the devil had taken up residence in the neighbourhood. People back then had amazing imaginations, no doubt fueled by a lack of scientific knowledge and fear of the unknown  (I wonder if this fear was fueled by the church to maintain order amongst the people and power over them? No, I'm not going there)... Knowledge truly is power in this respect and a killer of a wild imagination. Nowadays we allay our fears by softly telling ourselves that everything can be scientifically explained and if ghosts and other such supernatural phenomenon were to exist, it's the living we need to be most afeared of.

"What powers do they think we have, my grandmother and I? If she had real power, would she not be able to undo the locks to their stinking dungeon and fly through the air to safety? Would she not call up her master, Satan, to blast and shrivel them to dust and powder? And if had any powers, any at all, I would destroy them all, right here and now." ~ p.14

So yes I've established that the book piqued my interest in the history of 'witches' and witch hunts, but what of the story? I immediately took to Mary and needed to know what happened to her after she was cruelly jolted from the life she shared with her grandmother. They didn't hurt anyone. They helped their neighbours when illness struck and were called upon as midwives. Mary's grandmother was a wise woman; she educated Mary, taught her to read and to 'scribe', tended a 'physicks' garden, growing plants with medicinal properties. They weren't portrayed as dabbling in 'dark arts', partaking in naked dance rituals, casting spells or turning folk into toads (although there are certain individuals in the story (Reverend Johnson) who could have done with being on the receiving end of such a spell). They came across as spiritual people, in tune with nature and Celia Rees writes beautifully about Mary's spiritual experiences. They are magical but there is nothing supernatural about them. The reader could easily put Mary's sighting of a hare in the forest down to coincidence, but it's so nice to share these private moments of Mary's and read special meaning into them. After losing her grandmother I wanted her to be looked after. We all have private moments where the sighting of a bird or a rainbow means so much more to us... a sign from the universe or a passed loved one, perchance?

Mary befriends Jaybird, the native American boy who helped Mary and the Puritans pick their way through the immense forest to reach Beulah, their new settlement. I thought it interesting how Mary shares similar healing skills and knowledge to Jaybird, knowledge that is revered and accepted in his society but feared in Mary's. As Celia Rees writes on her Witch Child website:

"Although some English settlers showed respect, even admiration, for their Indian neighbours, most regarded them as little more than savages and thought their pagan beliefs put them in league with the Devil." [2]

A classic example of how people often misunderstand the customs of another culture, leading to ignorance and a misinformed view of that culture. Something sadly still in existence today.

My favourite part of the story was definitely the epic voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Rees described it vividly: the unsavoury smells, cramped living conditions, sailing conditions. I felt every lurch the ship made on stormy seas, the awful creaking and banging noises that would have terrified me (I endured a 10-day Iberian cruise a few years ago. I say 'endured' as every cranking sound I heard at night had me trembling. I have a phobia of large engines and things like propellors and the hull of a ship below the waterline. Makes me feel mightily overwhelmed and insecure. Makes me shudder. If I had a past life during the Industrial Revolution, I would have been useless).

I loved it when the ship got stuck too far north and ground to pretty much a halt amidst an ocean of icebergs, the crew sounding fathoms, the chilling calm of the scene. Then the fishy-breathed minister Elias Cornwell storms the deck, calling for a gathering of his flock and a sign from God. Cue a spectacular 'sign' from the Heavens leaving everyone agog and falling to their knees; Elias, arms outstretched, hair and robes flowing in true biblical fashion, to receive God's message. To see that sight now would have me in a state of awe, but to witness it 300 years ago would have been a major wow. However, not to Mary and her well travelled travelling companion, the apothecary, Jonah, who has witnessed such a sight before. Knowledge is power. Ignorance fuels fear.

This book has left me with many questions - some I'd like to ask the author about her characters and scenarios, and others about the actual historical period.

Amazing how a book of slim proportions has opened up a world of curiosity inside my head.


  1. Sounds like quite a book! I wish I read more, this makes me want to :)
    xo H

  2. Addicted to witchcraft books, and for some reason, not read this, it's now on the tbr list!!!

  3. Definitely read it - I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and I hope it gets you thinking.