Superstition and fear – Your worst enemies in Puritan times…

Witch Child by Celia Rees

Right at the beginning of this remarkable novel, Mary’s grandmother is tortured, tried and dies for being branded a ‘witch’. Rees lets you know exactly what was in store for the poor women who as healers, herbalists and midwives, were routinely denounced as witches when something went wrong in the superstitious Puritan times.

Mary is helped to escape a similar fate by joining a bunch of settlers going to America. She slots into a group with an Apothecary, Jonah and his son, and Martha, a widow who herself has some skills as a midwife. Mary is unused to being confined on the ship although her writing skills, (unusual for a woman at that time) are in demand. When the settlers reach the New World, she is happy to travel on with the others to the settlement which the previous shipload of this congregation had established. This is when she meets her first native American, Jaybird and his father guide them, and she is intrigued. Once they have roofs over their heads, she starts to venture into the forest, helping Jonah to research for medicinal plants, but also often meeting Jaybird. But tongues start wagging, and Mary finds herself again the centre of speculation over her wayward ways …

The novel is written as diary entries ‘The Mary Papers’ that had been found sewn into a quilt. It shows us what a hard life it was to be an woman with unusual skills in those days; living in a society in which the fear of God was omnipresent, through the ministrations of the Puritan clergy. The settlers life was not easy either, that first year of building, battling the long snowy winter and taming the land to get crops in was particularly hard and many died.

I found this novel richly evocative, it seems very real. It is shocking to encounter the bigotry of the Puritan leaders – their small-town thinking and belief that they are “God’s chosen people, just like the Israelites”. No wonder it bred the paranoia of the witch-hunts, along with an total disregard for the Native American Indians. This novel was spell-binding (!) from start to finish, as good an adult read as for teens. (10/10)

The edition I read also has an interesting reading group guide in the back, and indeed I think this book would be an excellent choice for groups. Further reading suggestions include another novel for teens on a similar theme The Merrybegotby Julie Hearn which I shall have to search out, plus of course The Crucible by Arthur Miller – I know I have the DVD somewhere …

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