Celia Rees,
Witch Child
(Bloomsbury, 2000;
Candlewyck, 2002)

Mary Nutall is a witch. When her grandmother is sacrificed to a 17th-century witch hunt in England, 14-year-old Mary is swept out of danger by a mysterious noblewoman and is sent out of the country to a haven she hopes will be safe from hysteria.

Unfortunately, Mary is sent to the New World with a group of Puritan colonists too zealous in their faith even for Salem, and she soon finds herself living as the orphan Mary Newbury in the strict confines of the remote Beulah settlement.

Witches remain a constant source of fear to the Puritan settlers, and Mary must tread softly to remain out of danger. Her fondness for walking in the woods, her knowledge of herbs and the healing arts, her education and her friendship with one of the natives combine to keep her under constant suspicion, and the malicious attentions of several of the settlement's young girls could bring disastrous results.

In many ways reminiscent of Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond, this book has the added spice of revolving around an actual witch. Still, don't read it looking for wild broom rides over the treetops or strange compacts with the devil in the dark Massachusetts wilderness; Mary is a good, hard-working person who has only a gift for healing and a touch of the Sight to condemn her. If she didn't label herself a witch on the very first page, a reader might not even notice. The text is slow-moving at times, but all the more engrossing for its steady, realistic pace.

Written loosely in the form of a girl's journal, Witch Child demonstrates the author's gift for historical fiction. Celia Rees fills the book with minute details from the lives of early American settlers, including the hardship of the ocean voyage and the fear with which they greeted the natives. It's a fascinating read, a well-spun twist on witch-hunt lore. (A sequel, Sorceress, makes excellent use of Witch Child's diary format.)

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 30 July 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.