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Book Reviews

December, 2000

Witch Child

by Celia Rees.

PB 236 p.

London: Bloomsbury 2000.

RRP $16.95

In 17th century England, Mary Newbury, daughter and grand-daughter of witches (of the herb-using, pagan variety), is shipped off for her safety to the New World with a party of Puritan settlers, after her grandmother is executed for witchcraft. It is indicated that her grandmother, in the form of a hare, is still around, but no-one can protect her from superstitious stupidity.

Arrived in the New World, they leave Salem to join an earlier party who were kicked out of the town for being rather too fundamentalist (this is thirty years before the Salem witch trials) and who have established their own settlement elsewhere.

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Mary is different, therefore suspect. She has friends, but she has also made enemies. Inevitably, there are mutterings about witchcraft and Mary finds that it may not be possible to leave her old troubles in England...

The story is written in the form of a journal, supposedly stitched into a quilt and merely edited by someone called Alison Ellman, who even gives her e-mail address in case readers want to contact her with further information about the characters.

While a journal is an acceptable novel form, if you?re going to claim this is a real seventeenth century manuscript, it should at least be told in language appropriate to the era - it isn't. It does work perfectly well as a historical novel, though, and the fantasy elements are light, not overpowering.

Some ends are left untied at the end, such as her friendship with the Indian lad, Jaybird, and the mysterious/mystical hare and female wolf that she sees in the forest. Perhaps a sequel is intended, but how? Another journal?

There is also a witch trial which, like the Salem one, begins with teenage girls playing with love magic and ends with hysterical accusations to escape prosecution themselves. One scene is taken almost directly from Arthur Miller?s The Crucible. Possibly the author didn't realise the Miller connection, but the connection with the Salem trials is clearly deliberate.

The environmentalist, feminist message is perhaps a little unsubtle, but on the whole, it?s an enjoyable novel and not difficult reading. Teenagers generally like novels written as journals or letters, because they can be put down. If you can persuade your teenager to read historical fiction in the first place, she should enjoy it.

Sue Bursztynski

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