Saturday, 9 December 2006

The Witch That Cannot Bewitch

Witch Child by Celia Rees is a young adult novel about a seventeenth-century English girl, Mary. The woman who raised Mary and whom Mary called her grandmother is tried and hung as a witch, and Mary winds up immigrating with a group of Puritan settlers to America in attempt to escape the same fate. Except that she is then accused of witchcraft there, and it turns out that she does indeed have some supernatural powers. Witch Child is a respectably good young adult novel – the writing is competent, it’s very well plotted and suspenseful, and the historical research seems to be accurate. Rees also used a Blair Witch Project-style gimmick, presenting the novel as though it were an actual historical diary by including prologues and afterword notes from one “Alison Ellman”, who states that efforts to identify Mary are ongoing and requesting that anyone who might have information about her email her at the address provided. I visited the site mentioned, and found that it featured some basic historical background for the book, period woodcut illustrations, Celia Rees’ explanations of how she came up with the idea and why she used the Alison Ellman presentation, and of course a vendor’s link so that the viewer can conveniently purchase the book and its sequel. I admire the cleverness of the Alison Ellman gimmick – it will make the book seem very immediate to modern teens. But the book itself is too slick. There isn’t a lot of depth. Yes, I realize that it’s a young adult fantasy novel and so I deliberately used the phrase “respectably good young adult novel” in my assessment above. Witch Child does stand up well compared to an average teen novel. But then so many teen novels are atrocious, so this is not saying much. Which leads me to the question of why they’re atrocious.

I’m impatient with the all too common practice of classifying children’s and young adult literature as some sort of lesser art than materials written for adults. To begin with, good writing is always something to cherish, wherever it may be found. Adults should be beyond the sort of developmental superiority and condescension children often have for those a few years younger than they, and be able to enjoy genuine artistry in all its forms and at all levels. Children and young adults deserve and need good writing, and I still think it’s fair to judge a young adult or child’s novel by the usual literary standards, to expect artistic and intellectual merit rather than merely readability. It’s entirely possible to write excellent literary fiction that is suited to a teenager’s intellectual level, as say, Cynthia Voigt has done. And if we fail to demand literary work from authors in this genre and also don’t acknowledge it when it does appear, we’re only reinforcing the low calibre. So, as I say, the book is a very slight one in terms of literary merits. It’s in the Lois Duncan vein – suspenseful, readable, but flimsy. The characterizations are rather shallow, and though Rees’ physical settings may be historically accurate she has not been able to recreate a convincing seventeenth-century psychology for her characters. Mary is too modern in her sensibilities, too sophisticated for a seventeenth-century 14-year-old girl, too brisk and assured in her choices and emotional reactions, too detached in her descriptions of her environment and society. She writes as though she were a twenty-first century adult coolly assessing the ridiculously hysterical people around her. Though she knows she has some magical powers, she never wonders if any others in her settlement do. She makes friends with a native American without having to overcome a trace of the prejudice and fear the other settlers uniformly feel. She masquerades as a boy and swims naked without a qualm. Meanwhile the other characters act on simplistic motivations. Mary’s considered a witch by the ill-natured of the town and protected by the kindly ones who know her. It probably would have been a sound idea to have some of those who cared for her also show some fear of possible witchcraft, to have to resolve some inner conflicts, to have Mary progress from being a child to a self-sufficient adult, to have her make mistakes and question herself and her own values. As is, it’s a thin little suspense novel, quickly and easily read, and almost as quickly and easily forgotten.

1 comment:

paduasoy said...

Another fascinating review, thanks. I've just had an article on emotion in children's historical novels accepted, so I've been thinking about these things too. You might be interested in Anne Scott MacLeod's article on anachronism of feeling in children's books. And it would be great if you wrote something about Voigt - really undervalued I think (apart from her fantasy novels, which I can't be doing with, though I do read fantasy).