Celia Rees of Warwick, in the heart of England, was a schoolteacher when she started writing for young adults. Her students loved American thrillers and wanted to read exciting stories about young British people. Her latest and enormously popular novel, Witch Child, takes the reader on a journey with Mary Newbury, an enchanting heroine who discovers she has supernatural powers. The story is couched in a device making it appear as though a seventeenth century journal called "The Mary Papers" was found stashed away in an "extremely rare quilt from the colonial period." The tale is so engrossing that one quickly forgets that Mary's journal is allegedly a found object over 300 years old.
Raised in the English woods by her grandmother—who is hanged as a witch—Mary finds herself the guest of a mysterious woman. Fearing for Mary's safety, the woman ships her with a box of basic supplies to the New World. Upon searching the box, Mary finds:
"...ink, quill, and a deal of paper, folded to make a book. I seized on this, turning the leaves hoping that here I would find answers to ease my heart. I put them back, my disappointment turning to anger. If it was a jest, I did not see the humor. Every page was blank."
Mary's anger turns to resolve, and she decides to start a journal... "[m]any here are writing them, to record the commencement of their Great Adventure." Her journal details her 18-month adventure aboard a ship bound for Salem, Massachusetts, and her life in Beulah, a Puritan settlement in the wilderness. Ms. Rees herself has kept journals, and she writes, "My researches showed that journal keeping was common, even encouraged [in the colonial period]. So I thought, why doesn't my girl keep one, even if it is a little different from the average Puritan's day book?"
Witch Child unfolds like a classic coming-of-age story as we follow a confused orphan through trials that reveal her true nature. During her voyage across the Atlantic, Mary discovers her prophetic powers and calls them "The Sight." Martha, a widow with a "healer's touch," befriends the young woman. Mary describes Martha's sympathetic nature, "Her green eyes seemed to see clear into me. It was as if she did not need to question me. She knew already." On land, the group treks through the wilderness to Beulah. Once settled, Mary dons a boy's clothes to visit a Native American shaman. Mary's past and powers remain secret from all others in the Puritan community, and eventually she must escape.
Eyes and seeing are a recurrent theme in Witch Child. Without fail, Mary notices the qualities of each major character's eyes. Eyes reveal identity, for example, when she realizes her relationship to her unknown benefactor. They reveal purpose when Mary meets a sailor who hopes to gain riches from whaling: "His eyes seemed full of coins." A particularly unpleasant reverend has eyes as "cold and empty as musket barrels." Finally, the shaman gives Mary the name, "Eyes of a Wolf."
When I asked Ms. Rees about her use of this theme, she replied, "Sometimes themes develop with you as the writer consciously developing them, which might be the case here. Sight is important, I guess, as Mary is actually physically seeing; i.e. bearing witness. Also her second sight is a manifestation of her psychic/supernatural power. Eyes...are a useful way for a writer to reveal emotion."
Ms. Rees did a commendable job handling the speech patterns of her characters. Since the author is British, Mary's voice has a realistic seventeenth-century tone. An American writer may not have been as successful in conveying the nuances of Mary's speech patterns. Though I usually shy away from historical novels set in colonial America because of disappointing anachronisms or patchy research, Witch Child was a pleasure to read. Ms. Rees studied American history at Warwick University and relied on her university library and the Internet "for everything from Native American herbal healing to maps of Salem Harbour" when researching her novel.
Research wasn't the only challenge facing the author. "Another difficulty," Ms. Rees says, "was working out the course of events within constraints of the seasons, significant dates in the calendar. Also the diary/journal itself is a challenging narrative form in that it has to look and read like a diary, but work like a novel."
The presentation of the novel as a found journal edited by one "Alison Ellman" intrigued me, even though I felt that it was an unnecessary device reminiscent of the movie, "Blair Witch Project." The movie was presented as a documentary video supposedly found after its creators had mysteriously disappeared. Ms. Rees says, "I wanted Mary to seem like a real person with a distinct and clear voice. I wanted her to involve the reader immediately, to bind her/him to the story. A journal seemed the obvious way to do this. Once I had the idea of the diary, it was clear from the first sentence that it would have to be hidden, which led me to the quilt. And if something is hidden, it could be found eventually—which is where Alison Ellman comes in."
Witch Child ends with an afterword, requesting readers to e-mail Ellman with any information they may have regarding any of the characters. The "Mary Papers" may end, but her story continues. Ms. Rees is now working on the sequel, Sorceress, which will combine Mary's story with that of a modern day Native American girl. In Witch Child, Ms. Rees has created a strong female character written with excellent scholarship, and it's a best seller to boot. Magical, indeed.
More information about Witch Child can be found on the author's website.
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