Witches (a Question of Character
& a Fiction Round-up)

What is a witch, anyway?  When I was a kid, I knew that witches wore black, had tall pointy hats, rode on brooms, and didn’t exist.

Later, I learned that there had been witch hunts, and that historically people had been convinced enough of the existence of witches to execute those who were convicted of such a thing.  Incredibly, it seems that many of these accused witches were actually charged with healing, rather than harming.  Later still, I learned that there are people, today, who are persecuted under accusations of witchcraft (or some translation thereof).

Sometime during high school, I read Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies, and the witches that lived in my imagination have ever since been independent women living on the edge of society – but integrally a part of it – who practice “headology and herbology” on a daily basis, and deeper magic with discretion.  No one to be trifled with, these nonetheless are good witches…at least, as good as any of us flawed human beings can be.  When they do practice magic, they tend to stick to the practical and effective kind (eschewing the showier methods of wizards).

Historically, the title of “witch” has been something someone else called you, not a title you claimed for yourself.  That’s changed, of course, and many folks – including some of my favorite bloggers – self-identify as witches, people who are brave enough to practice magic in a world that doesn’t really believe in it.  I love the idea of taking a word once used as an insult and owning it, reforming it, and claiming it as one’s own.  There’s a great book entitled A History of Witchcraft, that covers both historical and modern ideas of witchcraft.  It notes, if memory serves, that modern, self-identified witches have no direct lineage relating to the medieval or colonial accused witch.  Still, I would hazard to say that the word was chosen with good reason:  Many accused witches were folks brave enough to buck the established rules of society, and even today, it takes guts to choose a different path in a culture that is dominated by the big three monotheistic religions and, otherwise, a steadfast lack of belief in the supernatural.

Now, I’m going to let history and current events do their own thing, and just tell you about a few of my favorite fictional witches.

Wee Free Men and the Discworld Series, by Terry Pratchett
In the Discworld, witches are known for being independent, eccentric, observant, and for doing what needs to be done.  Also, they do magic and ride on brooms.  The thing with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is that it’s wickedly funny, frighteningly insightful, and manages to take a foundation of satire and develop it into brilliant characters and well-crafted, moving stories.  These are books that you can take on a miserable transatlantic flight and laugh through the whole thing, halfway through realize you’re being told a story that will live on in your imagination for years, and only half an hour after finishing the book realize that you’ve also been inspired to think about important concepts and maybe even learned a life lesson.

The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry
This story is not necessarily about a witch, as Barry walks the line between realistic fiction and magical realism.  It does take place in Salem, and the book has a rich sense of place, with a consciousness both of the history of the town and its current reclamation of witchcraft (in part fueled by the tourist industry).  The echos of witch hunts are haunting, and the book as a whole is a subtle, complex, beautifully-told story.

Under my Hat, short stories selected by Jonathan Strahan
I’m in the middle of reading this book right now.  With a slew of witch-themed stories from writers like Neil Gaiman and Garth Nix, it was irresistible.  So far, all the stories have been entertaining, with a few real keepers.

 

 

Chocolat, by Joanne Harris
Is Vienne a witch?  I don’t recall if she’s ever referred to as such in the book.  But she is certainly an independent woman who creates healing magic in the little town into which she wanders…  The film of the same name is gorgeous, a feast for your eyes.

 

Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman
Alice Hoffman has written multiple books with witches as characters, but this is the only one that I’ve read so far.  While it’s not my favorite of Hoffman’s novels, it’s still a great read.  I love Hoffman’s ability to make fairy tales hauntingly realistic, and this one doesn’t disappoint.  The movie of the same name is a lot of fun, too.

Which brings me to movies and…unfortunately, other than the two mentioned above, I can’t think of any good movies with witches in them.  I’m not a big horror fan and, anyway, characters like those in Season of the Witch (why, Nicolas Cage, why?) don’t have much to do with witches in my opinion.  This is a great season for witch flicks, so please chime in with recommendations for good witchy films!

Q:  What defines a witch to you?
Q:  What are your favorite stories featuring a witch or witches?


Romancing Charlotte, by Colin Scott (Book Review)

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I’ve been lucky enough to snag a copy of the new novel Romancing Charlotte, by Colin Scott.  On the most obvious level, this is a charming page-turner of a romance set in modern-day Ireland.  With well-developed characters and touching but realistic familial relationships complimenting the various romantic plotlines, this is a great book to cozy up with on a chill evening.

That being said, there’s a lot more to this story:  Scott’s hero and heroine are no ingénues, and it’s refreshing and all too rare to read a romance about folks in their later years.  With a Downton-Abbeyesque twist, Charlotte is the lady of the local manor, while PJ, recently returned from living in the States, is descended from a humbler family.  This division is a tricky one anywhere, and it’s made even more complex in an Irish setting, what with issues of religion and politics.  Scott also weaves in a strong sense of place, and a subplot involving illegal turf-cutting in peat bogs, an issue that is similarly layered and three-dimensional.  While “Colin Scott” is – according to his own twitter profile – a pseudonym, it’s obvious that this Irish author is writing from inside the culture:  Romancing Charlotte takes place in the nuanced, complex world of modern Ireland, not some “top o’ the mornin'” Hollywood version.

The Verdict:  Romancing Charlotte is like a good raspberry cordial:  It’s sweet and goes down easy, but nevertheless can be quite nuanced and much more nourishing than you might think.  It’s a perfect choice for anyone interested in the subtleties of modern Irish culture, for anyone who’d like to take a trip abroad between the pages, and really for anyone looking for a good read that will neither traumatize nor patronize.


Book Review: The Angel Makers, by Jessica Gregson

December sure is flying by!  I’ve been having a blast writing stories for Looseleaf, not to mention taking care of the usual holiday preparations.  But I wanted to make a quick stop here and point out a great novel that was just released this month.

The Angel Makers is the story of a small village in Hungary during the early 1900s.  Sari is the daughter of an herbalist, and when he dies she partners up with the village midwife.  When the men of the village go off to war, the women experience unexpected freedoms.  Then the men return, and Sari’s fiance becomes abusive.   Without, she feels, any other recourse, she poisons him.  But when the rumor spreads, the other women of the village want help with their husbands too…
This book is based on a true story.  You can read more about that here.

When I first read the back of this book, I thought it sounded pretty nightmarish, but it’s actually a very human story.  Author Jessica Gregson does a wonderful job of developing memorable characters and a distinct sense of place but her greatest achievement in this book is managing to neither vilify nor justify Sari’s actions.  This book is a wonderful read and ideal for discussion.

PS:  You can click on the cover image to find this book at an indie bookstore near you.


Book Review: The Night Circus

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Imagine, if you will, a circus.  Or maybe a carnival, since you walk through it from act to act.  This carnival has the artistry of Cirque du Soleil, is completely in black and white, only opens at night, shows up unannounced – and some of the acts might be real magic.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, has an interesting and compelling story with a satisfying ending, but the real reason I kept turning the page was that I wanted to spend just a few more sentences in the richly-textured world of this carnival.  This book has as strong a sense of place as any story I’ve read – and you won’t want to leave.

The Night Circus has been getting a lot of buzz, and is already a bestseller, so maybe it doesn’t really need more attention.  But this book is the most delightful novel for adults that I can think of, so I’m posting this anyway :)

Why’s it particularly boho?  Who hasn’t, at some point, at least daydreamed of running away to join a circus?  (Extra points if you or a friend has actually done this.)


Lord of the Rings as Chick Lit

I proclaimed my geekdom (again) by “liking” LotR, The Hobbit, and Peter Jackson on Facebook.  Plus, I got all teary when I watched a video from the set of The Hobbit.

My one gripe with Tolkein – and it’s not a unique one – is the lack of chicks in these stories.  Here he created a vast mythology, encompassing multiple ages, cultures, and peoples – but his women seem to be an afterthought.  It’s as though he figured that in any medieval setting, we’d just assume the women were stuck inside embroidering while the world ended.  What gives, J.R.R.?

Samuel Beckett (stay with me now) strenuously objected to casting women as Vladmir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot.  The justification I’ve heard for this is that he wanted the play to be about a human situation and – like it or not* – in our society the default human is male.  That is to say, Lord of the Rings isn’t just about “warrior-bonds** between men,” it’s also about a human struggle to maintain hope in the face of despair.  It follows that women don’t need to limit themselves to identifying with Eowyn – we’ve also got the full company of the Fellowship.  Which is nice, really – they get more screen time.

It seems like people often limit themselves to identifying with characters of the same gender.  I wonder why?  I like Eowyn because she, as a woman, takes the risk of fighting in the guise of a man, but I also like Boromir because he struggles with knowing which is the right course of action.  I know at least two men who love Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, which have a female protagonist – so I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in being able to identify with opposite-gender characters.  I still believe that it’s important to have strong female role models in literature (and film and theatre), but after all, Tolkein created a vast mythology, encompassing multiple ages, cultures, and peoples.  Maybe I should give him a break.  Maybe it’s enough that he created strong human characters.

*I don’t.
**Genuine or parodied.