Reviewed by Heather Haunert
Witch Child, a book written by English author Celia Rees, was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award and the North East Book Award. In addition, it has several accolades across the pond.
The book begins in a rather unusual way. It includes a letter written about the contents of the book. The “Mary Papers”, found tucked away between the layers of an antique quilt, tell the story of the journal papers hidden by a young girl named Mary Newbury in 1659.
Mary’s tale begins in England during the Spring of 1659, where fourteen-year-old she lives rather wildly with her “grandmother.” Mary’s grandmother is good at using the Earth and its plants; she’s known as a healer in her village. Unfortunately, this is a time of great unrest in England. Many people with a gift for healing others are singled out as witches. Mary’s grandmother is no exception. At the moment her grandmother is hung, Mary is grabbed by a stranger and taken to safety.
A woman of wealth saves Mary. She ensures that Mary is bathed and fed. Mary then learns she will be meeting Puritans in Southhampton to join them on the voyage to America. Mary is puzzled, afraid, and a little more than stubborn about making the crossing. The wealthy stranger briefly explains a bit of her backstory, and Mary learns a secret that will help her remain steadfast in her new life.
The Puritans and Mary begin their lengthy sea venture, and the author provides an incredible description of the boat and the horrific conditions that accompany the voyage from birthing a baby, the living conditions below deck, Mary’s “visions” for the first time, and eventually the sighting of land.
The newcomers arrive in Salem only to discover the others that came before them left the settlement for parts unknown. They struggle with staying in a place that seems established and safe or to follow their counterparts into the wilderness. The group decides to follow the others with the help of two Indian guides.
The remainder of the book is their arrival at Beulah, the wilderness settlement, and the trials and tribulations faced by the newest Puritans. Mary cannot help but be the center of attention in the worst way possible, ending with the accusation of witchcraft. Anyone even a little familiar with the Salem witch trials and the stories that surround that terrible part of the early Americana history will not be surprised by the end of Witch Child. It follows a typical pattern of accusation and the choice to stay and face persecution or flee to the safety of the unknown.
There is a second book, but the end of Witch Child has enough of a conclusion to satisfy the reader. The author ends with a brilliant touch by weaving the secret journal entries from the quilt into the finale of the story.