Witch Child and Sorceress

Witch Child and Sorceress, by Celia Rees

I was captivated by the cover of Witch Child when browsing a book sale. I'd never heard of Witch Child before, and picked it up, curious. Once I started reading, I couldn't put it down. This is a young adult tale about a girl who flees England after her grandmother is hung for witchcraft, followed by whispers that she herself is the same. She is taken in, somewhat reluctantly, by a pious group of Puritans heading to a pioneer colony of Beulah, located in Massachusetts.

I found every part of the story fascinating. I had assumed that, due to the location, it was written by an American author, but not so - Celia Rees is a preeminent British author, and Witch Child was (or still is?) required reading in English schools. I had been surprised how many people knew of this book, and remembered it fondly from childhood when it had made zero blip on my reading radar, but now it all makes sense.

The first book, Witch Child, is very Salem-esque. In fact, the immigrants pass through Salem on their way to Beulah, which is even more backwoods and is coincidentally built over sacred Native American* ground. The themes are similar as to what happened in Salem - there are good people and bad people, but human instinct seems to be first and foremost judge first and be rational later. When things go bad, those affected look for a scapegoat to lash out at. Mary is an outsider in the group. While she does find friendship among some of the people of Beulah, for the most part she is viewed as other, and that makes her vulnerable.

Mary is young and pretty and a mystery to those around her, and all of those things make her dangerous to those who wish to maintain order. She carries a whiff of scandal with her, as if all the rumours about her grandmother linger on her skin. Her mother follows her as best she can, but for the most part Mary is on her own, and behaves oddly. She does not hold a fear of the forest and tarries there, often in the company of the "savages," as the immigrants call them.

By far the most interesting people in the book are Jaybird and White Eagle, grandson and grandfather left without a tribe after the rest of their people had been consumed by smallpox. Mary's ease in the natural world, whether or not it comes from her gift, makes them find her kin to them, and they are accepting of her in ways that her "own" people are not. Eventually she must flee the persecution of the people of Beulah, who are planning to burn a witch, and she runs into a late winter storm to try her chances with the elements.

And that's where the first book ends. It is a shocking cliffhanger, I immediately went out and got me Sorceress, the conclusion of the tale. So, well played, Rees, I had to know what happened. Particularly I had to know whether Jaybird comes to rescue her.

I surprised myself with my teenage gushing, as I did not know that I needed the Jaybird-Mary ship in my life, but I did. Badly. Really, the reason I went to pick up Sorceress right away is that I needed to know if they got together and lived happily ever after.

Spoiler alert - It's complicated.

Mary does indeed marry Jaybird and they are accepted into another tribe along with White Eagle, and she bears two children and for fifteen years they live in relative peace and bliss, working the land and being at one with nature and their tribe. Except, of course, when it comes to the Native Americans in the 17th century, you know that things aren't going to end well. There is grief, suffering and loss, and I don't know if I could survive the hardships experienced by Mary. It's shattering, but then so is life, and so is history. The book very clearly underlines a horrific chapter of the American past, which is all too often glossed over, or forgotten entirely.

At the end of Witch Child, and throughout Sorceress, Rees uses a gimmick to connect Mary's story to the present. I think this is done to help us, the reader, remember all that was lost and all the abuses that were done to to the Native Americans, grievances which to this day have gone unrecognized, and this does do that. I found it distracting, though, from the main story line happening in the 17th century, so for me it didn't work entirely. I almost always feel this way when the storyline is told in flashbacks or visions - I just don't care about the modern characters, as they feel too much like devices than anything else. It could just be me. Overall, it did not take away from my great pleasure at reading this beautiful tale.

* I did some online research to try to find the proper term for the original peoples of North America. While in Canada most proper is to refer to the First Nations, it is my understanding that Native American is an appropriate term used to cover most tribes in the United States, which includes those being discussed in the books, so I will use Native American for the sake of this review.