Friday, February 19, 2010

Which Witch?


Good witches, wicked witches, feared witches, real witches. Witches are both the stuff that nightmares and fairy tales are made of and historical figures from the past. From black-clad, pointy hat-wearing, wart-covered caricatures to real, often misunderstood, women who practice the art of witchcraft, witches are a part of our literary tradition and our historical record. They are also, by the way, a lot of fun, drama, and of course, enchantment and magic.

The Witches by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake, 2007, Penguin Books, originally published 1983 (Children’s Fiction/ Adventure) 

Beloved author Roald Dahl possessed the delightful ability to write children’s books that his readers never outgrow. Maybe it’s because of his dark, quirky comic timing. Maybe it’s because he treats his readers with respect, intelligence, and good humor. Maybe it’s simply because he’s a storyteller of the highest order who infuses his books with whimsical charm, irresistible heroes and villains, and loads of magic and wonder. Plus, Roald Dahl has an extraordinary imagination. The Witches is one of his best. A boy and his impressive Norwegian grandmother are vacationing at a glamorous hotel. The boy leads a wondrous life—thanks to grandma’s unconventional theories of childrearing, he can explore all he wants, rarely has to bathe, and knows everything there is to know about witches. The cigar-smoking, wise-as-an-owl grandmother is an expert on witches. She knows they find children by smell (hence the benefits of remaining unwashed). She knows they’re bald and wear itchy wigs. She knows they disguise their curvy claws and square feet in long gloves and pointy shoes. She knows they’re foul, wicked creatures whose goal is to rid the world of little children. But all this knowledge does little good when the Grand High Witch of the World and her coven take a vacation at the very same hotel. Our intrepid little boy hero overhears the witches’ diabolical plan, but he is caught, teased, tormented, and finally turned into a mouse before he has even a chance to think about doing anything to stop them. Now, how can a tiny little mouse and an ancient grandmother stop the world’s most powerful witches? The evil-in-our-midst plot makes The Witches scary, the intimate and direct voice of the little critter narrator makes it charming, and the twists and turns with witchy mythology make it fun fun fun. You simply cannot read The Witches too many times.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, 2009, Harper Paperbacks, originally published 1995 (Fiction/ Fantasy) 


The Wizard of Oz is a modern fairy tale. Young Dorothy (and her little dog too) run away from home, get caught in a tornado, and are blown far away to a magical land of walking scarecrows, talking lions, wizards, witches, yellow brick roads, and emerald cities. Most readers will know the 1939 Hollywood musical movie starring Judy Garland best, but L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its thirteen sequels way back when in the early 1900s. But it is author Gregory Maguire’s Wicked that really blows the lid off this classic. He focuses on the future Wicked Witch of the West, who begins life as a small green girl named Elphaba. Elphie’s Munchkinlander parents are less than thrilled with this strange offspring, and more so when another daughter (normal-colored but armless) is born a couple years later. Still, the sisters survive their difficult childhood and attend university, where Elphie’s roommate is ditzy Glinda (better known as the Good Witch of the North). Elphaba is never wicked or evil; in fact she campaigns against the politically corrupt Wizard of Oz and fights for economic re-growth instead. Elphaba is ultimately an intelligent and out-spoken young woman, but fate and luck are just not on her side. Readers will sympathize with this other side of the Wicked Witch of the West and relish the clever social satire and biting cynicism inherent in this alternate vision of fanciful Oz. Just as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz swept off the page and became the beloved Hollywood movie, Wicked has transcended its original format to become a popular Broadway musical. Maguire has proved something of a visionary with his reimaging of fairy tales and classics—he has most definitely cornered the market with other inventive perspectives like Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Mirror Mirror, and two other entries in his Wicked Years series about the land of Oz, Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men. From the fairy godmother in Cinderella to the evil witch-queen in Snow White to the further adventures of Elphaba, Maguire’s blesses his fairy tale witches with a unique complexity that history has not previously afforded them.

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel: A Novel of War and Survival by Louise Murphy, 2003, Penguin Books (Fiction/ Historical Fiction)


The tale of two little children, lost in the woods, who stumble on a candy-coated cottage that actually houses a hungry, wicked witch is familiar to all of us—but boy, is it ever a dark, creepy story when you really think about it. Author Louise Murphy takes it one step further with her True Story of Hansel and Gretel by setting the story during the last months of World War II in Nazi-occupied Poland. “Hansel” is a seven-year-old boy and “Gretel” is his eleven-year-old sister; their father and stepmother were forced to abandon them in the Polish forests but begged them never to repeat their Jewish names. Adopting the monikers from the famous fairy tale, the children do indeed find a “witch” in the form of Magda, a village woman with a reputation. Instead of being devoured, the children are taken in and hidden—as harrowing situation as being locked in a cage by a cackling storybook witch would have been. In crisp prose and cut-to-the-quick dialogue, Murphy weaves a life in hiding with all the hunger, desperation, frustration and fear that entails. Other villagers enter the story, as do the distant journeys of the children’s father and stepmother. Whether or not the separated family and their saviors escape from real wicked witch—a cruel Nazi officer—is something a reader of a Holocaust novel can never be too sure off. Lyrical, haunting, and liberally sprinkled with superstition, folklore, and shades from the dark side of fairy tales, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel is one that won’t easily be forgotten.

A Great and Terrible Beauty: The Gemma Doyle Trilogy, Book 1 by Libba Bray, 2004, Delacorte Books (Teen Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Fantasy)


When A Great and Terrible Beauty opens in Victorian-era India, Gemma Doyle is an unruly, bratty teenager throwing a bit of a tantrum—not quite the proper young lady we’d expect. Gemma has grown up in India and even though the country is firmly under the Empire’s thumb, she longs to experience England. Her mother forbids this, but Gemma is about to get her wish. Walking in the marketplace, Gemma is overcome by a vision that foretells her mother’s death—a vision that comes suddenly and violently true. Guilt-ridden and bereft, Gemma is sent to Spence Academy, a boarding school in fashionable London. And not only is she snubbed by the beautiful, popular girls and her dumpy roommate alike, but mystery has followed her as well. An unknown young man from India spies on her and even more bewildering, the visions haven’t stopped. Despite her grief, Gemma is not one to shirk adventure. She knows she’s on the verge of a great discovery, especially after she finds an old diary that hints at a mystical society called The Order. Gemma makes an uneasy alliance with the most influential Spence girls and together these young ladies begin to explore the sort of power and mystery that is normally forbidden to the standard meek Victorian woman, a something that is more akin to the magic of witchcraft than to anything else. And once Gemma and her fellows have tasted that power, they’re determined never to go back to the life of mild gentility they’ve being trained to accept. Fans of supernatural romance like the ever-popular Twilight Saga will be drawn to Gemma and to the otherworldy flavor of her adventure. Equal parts mystery, horror, fantasy, and historical fiction, with a dash of forbidden romance thrown in, this trilogy from author Libba Bray is a decidedly original take on the old fashioned notions of witchcraft, mystery, and the proper Victorian era.

In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 by Mary Beth Norton, 2002, Alfred A. Knopf Books (Nonfiction/ American History/ 17th Century) 

In a tiny town in Massachusetts, in the middle of the winter of 1691, two young girls began to suffer from strange fits. Their elders diagnosed the cause as witchcraft, and soon accusations of devil-worship were flying from neighbor to neighbor. All in all, 144 men and women were jailed. Of the fifty-four who confessed to practicing witchcraft, fourteen women and six men were put to death. Modern interpretations of the events include angst-y teenagers who got carried away, the accidental ingestion of hallucinogenic fungus in rye bread, and the actual practice of witchcraft. Noted historian Mary Beth Norton (whose 1997 book Founding Mothers and Fathers was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize) examines the events at Salem from the perspective of the people who were there at the time, without the benefit of modern hindsight. In the Devil’s Snare reveals new, relevant pieces of information. The residents of Essex County, Massachusetts, were engaged in a war that effected their actions every day. They called it the Second Indian War; today we call it (when we remember it) King William’s War. Either way, it engaged colonial settlers in a constant battle with the French, and with the Native Americans the French had recruited, for control of the frontier. Norton bases the hysteria of the witchcraft accusations firmly in the continuous stresses and losses caused by this war in the settlers’ backyards. She also notes that the Salem witch trials marked one of the very few and far between occasions where women were taken seriously. Seventeenth century women did not have the same rights that men had; women were the property of their fathers or husbands and were believed to be weaker, less intelligent, and more unstable than men. The trail judges (all men), then, had specific motives of their own for going against tradition and taking these feminine claims to heart. Norton’s exploration of these previously less-studied aspects sheds new light on the causes and outcomes of the Salem witch hunts. The result is a finely written, extensively researched, fresh, new version of this infamous chapter in American history.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, 2009, Hyperion Books (Fiction/ Historical Fiction)


The Salem witch trials hold great appeal for fiction writers. Author Katherine Howe is a historian whose family has direct ties to Salem in 1692, and Howe uses that real history to cement her story in fascinating fact. But she begins in 1991 with Connie Godwin, a young historian working on her doctorate at Harvard. Connie is remarkably bright and determined to be a success in her chosen field—but first she has to fulfill certain family obligations, like getting her grandmother’s messy house ready for sale. Sifting through the rubble of a well-lived life in the attic, Connie finds a key and a scrap of paper with the words “Deliverance Dane” written on it. Connie doesn’t know what this means—yet—but the reader does, because Connie’s story has been alternating with chapters set in Salem, Massachusetts, during the notorious witchcraft trials. Deliverance Dane is one of the townswomen accused of witchcraft as well as the author of a “physick book” that contains both home remedies and magic spells. Ever the good historian, Connie senses an ancient mystery and becomes an academic detective, though her research is both helped and hindered by her New Age-y mother, handsome new boyfriend with a romantic job (he builds church steeples), and a professor who piles on the pressure and may or may not have some sinister motives for doing so. Meanwhile, back in 1692, Deliverance Dane is getting an all-too-intimate view of the witch hunt hysteria. A breezy page turner packed with the author’s historical know-how, a suspenseful literary mystery, and a richly detailed historical portrait all rolled into one, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane has a sense of history, mystery, and humor that readers will find hard to resist.

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart, 2008, Chicago Review Press, originally published 1988 (Historical Fiction/ Romance)


When Gilly Ramsey was a lonesome little girl, her one true friend was her mother’s eccentric and enchanting cousin Geilles. Geilles had a near-magical way of teaching little Gilly about flowers and animals and then—poof—she’d disappear on one of her world travels, leaving Gilly alone again but a little less lonely. When Gilly grows into a resourceful, modest, lovely young woman in the late 1940s, cousin Geilles wills her a charming old cottage in the countryside. As Gilly makes her new house into a home and gets to know the neighbors, she discovers that Geilles had something of a reputation as a “white witch” with the ability to cure minor aches of the mind, body, and spirit. And, to Gilly’s surprise, the locals expect more of the same from her; to her even greater surprise, the know-how to do so comes very easily. But there’s a mystery here as well. One neighbor, cheery Agnes Trapp, is a bit too friendly, and a bit too eager to get her hands on something hidden inside Geilles’ house. Another neighbor is a strikingly handsome writer, with a precocious animal-loving son who offers the true olive branch of friendship. A few animals play a significant role—carrier pigeons, a black cat, a wounded dog. And Geilles’ cottage has a few surprises as well, including a room full of herbs and a missing recipe book. There’s even the occasional flash of “Sight” that gives Gilly and extra, special power. Author Mary Stewart is best known for her gothic romances and her trilogy about the Arthurian legend; Thornyhold is gentle little gem that’s filled to the brim with an old-fashioned, cozy charm.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman, 1999, Spike/ Avon Books (Fiction/ Fantasy) 

The town of Wall is named for just that, a rock wall that separates its homes and buildings from a wide field that is forbidden to the townspeople—except for one night every nine years, when a fair is hosted by the residents of Faerie—fairies, witches, wizards, practitioners of magic of all kinds. Young Tristran Thorn (the son of a union between mortal and magic, though he doesn’t know it) is drawn across that wall one night—not a fair night—when his beloved sees a falling star land on the other side and demands that he fetch it to prove his love. Tristran sneaks across the wall into Faerie and sets out on a series of adventures, aided by a mysterious and instinctive understanding of magic. The fallen star is easy to find, but difficult to hold on to. For starters, the star is actually a living, breathing young woman named Yvaine. Then Tristran has to get back to Wall with Yvaine, a task made all the more difficult by the others who pursue the star for their own means. These are the sons of Lord Stormhold, who seek the star to claim the throne, and three sister-witches, who need the heart of a star to restore their lustrous youth and beauty. The witches are wicked (and bicker nonstop about whose turn it is to fetch what foul ingredient for the potions), the lords are cruel (and accompanied by the ghosts of their dead brothers), the hero is brave (and has no idea what he really wants), the lady is beautiful (and stubborn as a mule). In short, author Neil Gaiman has (once again) spun a quirky, creative, colorful fairy tale that’s warm and witty and full of life.

The Dark Horse Book of Witchcraft edited by Scott Allie, 2003, Dark Horse Comics (Comics/ Graphic Novels/ Fantasy) 


From Frank Miller’s Sin City to graphic adaptations of StarWars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Aliens, and Predator, Dark Horse Comics has made a name for itself creating some of the most popular, innovative, and creative publishing houses working today. Noted artists Mike Mignola, Gary Gianni, Tony Millionaire, and Jill Thompson and more have contributed short stories, comics, fables, and interviews to this anthology of wicked, wonderful witchcraft. The witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth make a cartoonish appearance; underground superhero Hellboy has his own adventure with witches. There’s an animal fable/ morality tale, and, of course, the Salem witch trials make an appearance. Each episode is ingeniously illustrated in a different style by a different artist who collaborates with a different writer. To provide a real-life point of view, there’s even an interview with a practicing Wiccan priestess. The result is not a random hodge-podge, but a clever, atmospheric blending of genres, styles, and stories that present almost every conceivable perspective on our cultural understanding of witches, Wicca, and witchcraft. Ranging from smart and clever to disturbing and creepy, The Dark Horse Book of Witchcraft offers a truly remarkable portrait of all things witchy. For more spooky, artistic fun, there’s also The Dark Horse Book of Haunting and The Dark Horse Book of Monsters.

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