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Witch Child
By Celia Rees

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Witch Child

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Witch Child
Large Print Edition
By Celia Rees
Thorndike Press - Large Print, (2002)
ISBN: 0-7862-3896-8
Genre: Fiction - Young Adult

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - April 26, 2002

Witch Child is a compelling, riveting narrative, and it has won an honored place on my list of favorite books for young adults, alongside such works as The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, and The Iron Peacock by Mary Stetson Clarke. In this book, Celia Rees, tackles the subject of witch hysteria - a phenomenon that was prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 1600's.

In this work the heroine is Mary, a fourteen-year-old witch. As the book opens, Mary is faced with the prospect of seeing her grandmother, Eliza Nuttall, hung as a witch. But at the last second a mysterious stranger stops her from looking. Mary knows that the villagers will not be content with just hanging her grandmother, so she consents to the stranger's offer to send her to America.

Raised by her grandmother, Mary finds herself alone in the world, being sent on a voyage to an unknown and dangerous land in the company of strangers. But even this safe haven is not as safe as it first appears. Along with her new life, Mary must also get use to a new name, Mary Newbury, as it would not do for folks to know that her grandmother was hanged as a witch.

She travels to America with a group of Puritans, who are friendly, but not overly inquisitive. Along the way she is befriended by the widow Martha Everdale, who takes her under her wing and treats her like a daughter. Mary also finds that she has attracted the eye of the Reverend Elias Cornwell, in part because she can read and write. On board the ship, the Reverend Cornwell is quick to make use of Mary as his secretary. But whispers soon abound that the good Reverend may have set his eye upon Mary as his future wife - a fate that filled her with dread!

Rees's writing is powerful and captivating. From the moment you meet Mary, you are rooting for her. And, in short order, you understand the very real danger's that she faces in a time where a twist of fate, a petty disagreement, jealousy, or a stupid superstition could, and often did, result in the torture or cold-blooded execution of 'the culprit'. At every turn, Mary knows that if anyone finds out that she is a witch, or if they suspect it, her life will be forfeited. Therefore, she not only has to struggle to make a life for herself in her new homeland, but she also has to pretend that she is a good and dutiful Puritan with naught by holy thoughts in her head.

Mary tries to 'be good', but her vivacity and energetic nature tends to win out. More than once she sneaks away from the group, in order to don men's clothing so she can explore the forests that surround the settlement in which she finds herself living. In the woods she is befriended by Jaybird, a stealthy Indian whose lands were preempted by the Puritan settlers. As their friendship grows, so does the witch hysteria in Beulah, the town Mary lives in. In short order she must make a life or death decision. Stay in Beulah and be accused of being a witch, or flee to the woods. What choice would you make?

Witch Child is written in the form of a diary, and it purports to be Mary's own diary. The diary was supposedly found, sewn into the layers of a quilt. Be forewarned, the diary entries end abruptly, and you will have to decide for yourself what happened to Mary. Personally, I like Rees's choice of a non-ending for the book. It allows the reader to decide, for himself, what happened. This ending will also make you think about what you might have done if you were Mary and you were faced with the choices she had to make. This book is ideal for young adult readers, and adults who are young at heart.

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