Kit’s Crit: THE KING’S WITCH (Cecilia Holland)

Cecelia Holland’s The King’s Witch (New York: Berkley, 2011) is a historical novel set during the Third Crusade to take Jerusalem, around 1191.  Edythe – a young Jewish woman pretending to be Christian – is dispatched by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine to inform on her children, Richard the Lionheart and his sister Johanna.  Edythe has inherited a little folk-healing skill from her physician father, and using her knowledge of herbs and potions she manages to save the king’s life when he contracts a dangerous fever, a feat than earns her the nickname of witch.  Fortunately, this is the era before the Burning Times swept across Europe.

King Richard embarks on his holy campaign to atone for the homosexuality he believes makes him a monster in the eyes of God.  On the same journey, Edythe begins her own religious pilgrimage to discover and reclaim her Jewish heritage.  She develops a bond with another outsider, the king’s bastard relative called Rouquin, who tells her that Richard’s crusade “isn’t about God” but rather “about power.”  This ironically proves true at the end – with the suggestion that the strongest power on earth is love.

Although a lot of political background informs the start of the novel, Holland’s crisp style cuts cleanly through to the center of this original, inventive tale.  It is well-researched and nicely executed, especially the early medicinal knowledge which includes a particularly harrowing head-trauma surgery.
The King’s Witch can be classified as both a romance and a fiction.  And while the relationship between Edythe and Rouquin is not entirely convincing, the action scenes and excellent details prove sufficient to make this a satisfying historical novel.

Kit’s Crit: Tell My Horse (Zora Neale Hurston)

Hurston

Do you believe in Zombies?  Having studied Voodoo in Jamaica and Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston’s book Tell My Horse (1938) claims that the undead really do exist and she has seen proof with her own eyes!

As a member of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was interested in recovering authentic black feminine power.  But she did not look for it in the guise of the New Woman, she wanted to reconnect with the wily, wild conjure woman from the African Ur-cultures, the pagan witches of antiquity.

Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica is divided into three parts.  The first two are a little disorganized as she describes the history and politics of Jamaica and Haiti.  Legend has it that while Hurston was doing “under cover” research in Jamaica, the natives found out she was going to publish their secrets and she had to flee the island in fear of her life.

The third section about Voodoo is both disturbing and compelling.  Hurston respectfully introduces this practice as “a religion of creation and life,” but then describes at length the “people who have been called back from the dead,” in particular “this case of Felicia Felix-Mentor . . . So I know there are Zombies in Haiti.”  But these are not the flesh-eating TV characters that appear in The Walking Dead.  Haitian Zombies are generally called back for one of three reasons: to work as free manual labor toiling in the fields; as the revenge of an enemy who wants to deny them eternal rest and peace; or as a sacrifice to another spirit.  It is the Haitian version of giving-a-soul-to-the-devil.

ZombieThe dead person’s spirit is stolen by the Bocor  who turns the body into a mindless slave.  Bocors are the “bad witches” of Voodo, as opposed to the “good witch” leaders called the Houngan. 

Tell My Horse is a strange and fascinating attempt to explain the West Indian Obeah practices.  It is weird – and at times disgusting – and definitely an acquired taste.  Scholars will find it useful, but I do not think its antiquated style holds much appeal for the general reader.

Fortunately, it is a very different book from Hurston’s other stellar work!

Kit’s Crit: The Witch of Eye (Mari Griffith)

The Witch of Eye

Mari Griffith

witch-of-eye

Set in the mid-Fifteenth Century, The Witch of Eye is a historical fiction based on the true story of Margery Jourdemayne, a wise woman from Eye Next Westminster, who was eventually burned at the stake.  The infamous Witch of Eye acts on behalf of the Duchess of Gloucester, Eleanor Cobham, who is desperate to give Duke Humphrey a son.  Into these known facts Mari Griffith skillfully weaves an invented love story between a dairymaid called Jenna Harding, and Margery Jourdemayne’s yeoman farmer husband, William.

Griffith draws a convincing scene of life in medieval England and her attention to detail is very impressive.  She portrays that ambiguous time when people of all ranks looked to supernatural forces to help them achieve their desires, sometimes even assisted by members of the clergy.  Jenna Harding is the most modern – and appealing – character who is drawn into dangerous circumstances over which she has little control.  Fortunately, things work out well for her in the end.

I enjoyed this well-paced book.  Highly recommended if you like a touch of romance in your historical fiction!

Kit’s Crit: The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)

Historian

Elizabeth Kostova’s epic novel The Historian is a rich and unusual retelling of the Dracula myth.  The narrator is an unnamed professor’s daughter who embarks on a quest to uncover the secrets of her family’s history, only to find herself drawn into the dark world of vampires descending from Vlad the Impaler.

The entire book is a historical mystery, spanning several continents and many generations.  Its central premise – that Dracula is still alive and stalking the European academics who are hunting him – leads both the narrator and her father on the well-trodden trail  in search of Vlad’s tomb.

But The Historian is also a serious and scholarly investigation of Transylvanian mythology, blending the known facts about the real Vlad the Impaler with Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula.  Its examination of good and evil, quest and obsession, religion, superstition, and  family ties, at first appears quaint, but ends up quite thought-provoking.

Kostova’s version is original and well-told, full of beautiful descriptions that evoke the terror and suspense of the supernatural theme.  And while Dracula’s central motivation is rather banal – there are a lot of convenient co-incidences – and the letter format is too lengthy in parts – I still found this book a captivating and enjoyable read.

Kit’s Crit: God Help The Child (Toni Morrison)

Morrison

Photo: Kit Perriman

I have long suspected that Toni Morrison’s novels can be paired, each one offering a different insight into a familiar (often harrowing) situation.  Her latest book, God Help the Child (New York: Knopf, 2015) is no exception.  Indeed, it makes a splendid companion to her first publication The Bluest Eye, as both stories focus on the aftereffects of childhood trauma, using a variety of narrative devices and a sprinkling of magical realism.

The Bluest Eye (1970) shows a young black girl’s descent into madness as a result of her ethnic inferiority complex and her father’s sexual abuse.  Pecola is destroyed by her circumstances.  In God Help the Child, however, the blue-black Bride is rejected by her high-yellow parents, and harshly treated by a mother trying to prepare her for the skin privileges in racist America.  But instead of being crushed, Bride not only survives with great dignity, she turns her blackness into a hot commodity and becomes a successful cosmetics mogul.

But Bride feels guilty about a lie she told as an eight-year-old child that sent an innocent woman to jail.  When the woman is released she tries to make amends, and at that point her carefully-shaped life begins to melt away.  She confesses her perjury to her lover, a jazz musician called Booker, who promptly declares, “You not the woman I want”(8).  This sends Bride into a form of arrested development where her body slowly shrinks back to its childhood state, still craving forgiveness and acceptance.  And only when she has gone on a quest — been reunited with Booker — and he cries, “I love you! Love you!”(164) does she start to become whole again.

Bride has “something witchy” about her eyes (6), a clue to the fact this is a modern fairy tale.  Like The Ugly Duckling, she grows from being a unattractive reject into a stunning success, and the dark child who lied and ruined an innocent life transforms into a beautiful goddess from the warmth of human love.

Like all of Morrison’s books, God Help the Child is full of poetic language, though in this sparse novella there is transcendence and a positive resolution. While not as complex as Paradise, or as poignant as Beloved, I enjoyed the story and the resilience it portrays.  Childhood trauma warps and shapes the adult life – but it can be overcome!

Pure magic.

Kit’s Crit: Daughters of the Witching Hill (Mary Sharratt)

Sarratt

It is impossible to know what really happened before and during the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 when the only extant document is the blatantly biased trial record, written by a clerk called Thomas Potts to gain favor with King James 1st.  Mary Sharratt, however, makes an excellent attempt at fleshing out a plausible tale around the two central characters — a local cunning woman known as Mother Demdike (Bess Southerns), and her pretty teenage granddaughter (Alizon Device).  Sharratt’s cunning folk are Catholic herbalists and fortune-tellers, doing whatever they can to survive in remote, harsh Lancashire.

Daughters of the Witching Hill (Mariner Books, 2011) is more a historical fiction than a thriller.  It offers a sympathetic portrayal of marginalized females battling against the patriarchy.  Sharratt has a good grasp of the local superstitions, traditions, religious conflict, and public ignorance of the period, and the Demdike clan emerge as a group of strong women, bonded by circumstance and sustained with love.  Most interesting is Sharratt’s invented seventeenth-century Lancashire dialect: “I bide with my daughter, Liza of the squint-eye, and with my granddaughter, Alizon . . . .”

 As is necessary in any saga as complex as the Lancashire Witches, Sharratt takes some “fictional liberties” by combining several real people into one composite character, and changing some of the repetitive historical names for the sake of clarity.  She also suggests that Demdike taught another rival cunning woman her craft (Mother Chattox); that Mistress Alice Nutter was a secret practicing Catholic; and that Justice Roger Nowell derived some personal (perhaps sexual) satisfaction from his dealing with the so-called witches.  These are all credible assumptions.

Less likely, is her portrayal of Demdike’s daughter Elizabeth Device (known locally as “Squinting Lizzie”).  In Daughters of the Witching Hill Lizzie has no interest in her mother’s magic.  She appears as a chaste lonely widow who follows the new religion because she is infatuated with a Church Warden called Richard Baldwin.  He impregnates her with a third child, Jennet Device.  Yet while this provides a romantic interlude in the harrowing proceedings, I strongly suspect the Demdike home was called Malkin Tower because malkin meant “sluttish woman” (OED) and  Squinting Lizzie may well have been one of the local prostitutes!

Sharratt, however, has every right to fill in the gaps of this ambiguous story with her own interpretation, and her sympathetic version of events certainly makes an intriguing read.  A highly-recommended novel.

Kit’s Crit: Interregnum (Geraldine Monk)

Monk

Geraldine Monk’s Interregnum is a collection of experimental poems based on the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612.  The title refers to a gap or pause in history where the social order shifts.  In this collection, nine-year-old Jennet Device represents such a metamorphosis on several different levels.  She is the downtrodden, exploited child – a female in the lowest patriarchal position – and is closely aligned with the animal kingdom.  But she also becomes an instrument of change.

 As the folklorist John Roby shrewdly observed, “Witchcraft and kingcraft both came in with the Stuarts and went out with them.”  Twenty-two years after the first Lancashire Witch Trials, another group of Pendle folk were sent to the assizes, found guilty, but eventually received a royal pardon from Charles 1st who was not as superstitious as his father, King James.  Jennet Device is thought to have been among the accused – “Babyface on the chopping block” (Monk) – but the times were finally changing.

This anthology is strange and penetrating.  It pushes against traditional language, exploring a stark landscape where everything struggles to survive against poverty, prejudice, and oppression.  Resistance is inscribed on the body in scabs and scars.  But there is a freedom in the natural world that can liberate even the weariest spirit.

Monk explores the importance of what happened on the slopes of Pendle Hill – past and present – questioning to what extent history can impact the future.  She ultimately concludes that although we cannot live the lives of others – nor escape “Words birthed.  Made flesh.  Took wing.  Horrids and / enormaties” – we can strive to be less ignorant and more compassionate.

If you like challenging poetry that is felt and processed in gut before being savored in the mind, you will probably enjoy Interregnum.