The Little Broomstick (1971), by Mary Stewart

7 January 2018

In anticipation of Studio Ponoc’s upcoming release of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, I thought I would read Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick, upon which the movie is based. Mary Stewart is, after all, one of my favourite adult authors. It turns out that The Little Broomstick is not all that easy to find, but yesterday my copy came in the post, shipped all the way from the wilds of North Yorkshire.

Mary Stewart is a mistress of descriptive writing, as much in The Little Broomstick as in her novels for adults, but this is not perhaps a strength: the child reader will likely not want to savour the lengthy, intimate description of Great-Aunt Charlotte’s gardener, or even the garden he inhabits, with its “sad, beautiful smell of autumn” (13). But maybe I am unfairly imposing the sensibilities of a modern child reader on a book written in 1971; for me, timeless classics such as Black Beauty (1877) and Swallows and Amazons (1930) fail in this regard just as strongly. The intelligence and sophistication with language that are a trademark of Stewart’s writing are similarly weakened when aimed at a younger readership. Again, though, modern sensibilities may be at fault in my evaluation, for her narrative style does effectively meld childish linguistic simplicity with a hint of fairy tale rhetoric. There is something almost Diana-Wynne-Jonesian about her narrative voice, which can only be a good thing in a story about witches.

The story begins in a rather recognizable way, with a young girl sent off to live with an aged relative (à la The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 1950). Lonely, she wanders into the autumn-dying garden, and encounters the taciturn gardener and a robin flitting about “as if it were his familiar” (à la The Secret Garden, 1911). The discovery of a magical flower (the “witch’s flower” of the anime) and its animation of a little broomstick Mary finds, lead her to Endor College for witches. I am certain that J.K. Rowling has read this book. From here, though, The Little Broomstick branches out on its own, refusing to conform to the trope of schools for good witches and wizards such as Hogwarts, Larwood House, or Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. The students at Endor College are learning “spells of the simpler kind. Turning milk sour, blighting turnips, making the cows go dry” (51), and chanting distorted versions of children’s verse (à la Alice in Wonderland (1865), but lacking any levity) that are unquestionably intended to harm. Mary is quite sure that, despite the cat Tib and the Little Broomstick having brought her here, this is not a school she wishes to attend.

Again disrupting current narrative tropes, Mary’s magic does not come from any hereditary propensity to witchcraft, but rather from her finding the witch’s flower and rubbing its pollen on the broomstick handle. Or so one could choose to believe, if one did not want to consider Mary in any way connected with the evil that is Endor College. And Mary does distance herself irrevocably from the institution, actually effecting its demise. But the question still remains: why, on her first foray into the woods, did Mary find the magical flower that blooms only once every seven years? And why did she find the Little Broomstick hidden in a corner that replaced the unwieldy besom the gardener hands her to use? And why does the invisibility spell work so well on a neophyte, unless she possesses some latent magic of her own? These questions remain unanswered in the light of the logical, “daylight world” dénouement provided, but readers are allowed still to wonder…

So despite my initial reservations, coming from a strong habit of reading Mary Stewart’s writing from adults, I have to say that The Little Broomstick satisfies in every way: it refused to present a warm-cuddly version of witchcraft and magic; it has a simple yet exciting plot that takes place in a number of days rather than weeks or months (more satisfying for younger readers); and it leaves readers with something to wonder about, even while it presents an easily accepted narrative path for Mary’s future. I can imagine reading this to a young child over the space of a week, but perhaps not at bedtime. I wish I had found a copy ten or twelve years ago, and read it to my own children.

Hexed (2014), by Michelle Krys

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.1.

Krys - HexedYou’ve got to love a book that disses Twilight not once, but twice. That being said, there are myriad other reasons for reading Michelle Krys’s Hexed, not the least of which is Krys’s engaging characterization and willingness to subvert narrative expectations.

Indigo Blackwood is having a rotten day. Her best friend, Bianca, is being a hag (in the colloquial rather than supernatural sense); her undesirable neighbour, Paige, successfully corners her for a ride (which seriously infringes on Indigo’s cool factor); and a body lands in front of her car as she drives home. What is most disturbing, though, is that the dead man was holding a paper inscribed with Indigo’s mother’s Wicca shop address.

Enter Bishop: previously dead, seemingly stalking Indie, overflowing with sarcasm, yet apparently necessary in Indie’s quest for answers. Indie’s mother is almost paranoid about protecting her “Bible,” properly titled The Witch Hunter’s Bible. When she is accosted, and the Bible goes missing, Indie swears she will get it back and sets out to find Bishop, whom she knows is somehow connected. Instead, he finds her, and insinuates himself into her life, revealing to her the world of magic to which he—and Indie, it turns out—belongs. Magical stuff happens. I can say no more than this without spoilers; suffice it to say that lurking within the events that ensue are moments in which the reader’s expectations are—sometimes violently—disrupted. Krys manages nonetheless to retain her readers’ loyalty; her writing inspires readers’ trust in a way that is necessary to carry us through the rough patches. The one narrative expectation that is not subverted is our desire for an at-least-somewhat-happy ending.

The dénouement, though, is the one moment that disturbed me. I felt betrayed. Hexed contains an epilogue, three pages in length, which reveals the central conflict of the as-yet-untitled sequel. Why was this necessary? It is almost as if the publisher needed a hook to lure readers into purchasing the next installment… But Hexed in and of itself contains a successful, cohesive narrative arc. There is a hint of where the story might go, and that is enough. Krys’s characters, her plot, her narrative voice all engage the reader successfully: we want to stay in her world. The attempt to trick readers into further engagement seems crass and manipulative, when the story inspires reader loyalty on its own merits.

The Last Days of Tian Di: Shade & Sorceress (Book 1, 2012), by Catherine Egan

Egan-ShadeIn Shade & Sorceress, Catherine Egan presents us with Eliza Tok, a young protagonist who exhibits all the frailties of her twelve years. She embodies also the unshakable love that a daughter can have for the father who has raised her single-handedly, travelling from one place to another, running from something that she does not understand. Unbeknownst to her, Eliza is the daughter of the Shang Sorceress, who had preferred a Sorma man—one of a race of “nomadic desert people” (8)—to an arranged marriage intended to increase her offsprings’ magical powers. Eliza is thus “darker than the island children … with hair that would neither lie down flat nor curl nicely, but whose disorderly tendrils sprouted from her head in total defiance of both fashion and gravity” (9). The picture on the cover, too, shows a dark young girl, with tight dishevelled curls: a refreshing departure from covers in the past, often showing white models despite authors’ explicit descriptions.

The first page of Shade & Sorceress gave me pause, though: the author, I thought, must like Castle, or (better) be a Firefly aficionado. Our heroine, Eliza, and her best friend are daring each other to jump off a cliff into the ocean (always a good start: a protagonist with spirit), and Eliza comments that she “seriously doubt[s] that Nat Fillion really jumped off here” (1). I pictured Malcolm Reynolds in any of a number of adventurous scenes… But then Nat disappears from the book, and Eliza is taken from her home, and the story goes on…

Apart from this momentary jolt (which would have passed less obtrusively later in the narrative), the story moves quickly forward, introducing us to the Mancers, dragon-riding wizards from the Republic’s capitol. Eliza learns that she is special: heir to her sorceress mother’s magical powers. The problem is, Eliza herself has no magical powers. Taken away by the Mancers to live under their protection and study magic, Eliza is homesick and troubled. Her only friend is the son of a servant, Charlie, until her friend Nell is allowed to come for a visit. While Charlie, Eliza, and Nell get into mischief and become fast friends, the Mancers become more and more sure that Eliza has no magic. And they need her to have magic, for the Xia Sorceress—whom they had imprisoned years earlier—is somehow becoming more powerful.

Eliza does not seem to be a sorceress; Charlie is not actually a servant’s young son; the Mancers are not necessarily all benevolent: Eliza does not know who to trust, or who to turn to when her father is kidnapped and the Mancers refuse to help. Encouraged by Charlie—who by now they should know better than to trust—Eliza and Nell set off to rescue Eliza’s father.

Narrative expectations have conditioned us to anticipate in our protagonists a maturity above their actual years. Eliza’s decisions thus struck me as rather poor choices, until it was brought home to me that Eliza is only twelve years old: so of course finding her father is going to weigh more heavily in her considerations than rules she has been told but does not understand, or even her own safety. She is also more likely to trust a creature who has shown his friendship when no one else did, even if the adults have told her he is—well—not Charlie. Throughout their adventures, Eliza and Nell must rely on their own interpretations of the places and people around them. Those they think are their friends try to kill them; those who would seem to be enemies help them to escape… readers will be caught and tossed on waves of thought and emotion along with Eliza. There is only one constant in her mind: she must find and save her father, even if she dies in the attempt.  In her struggles to stand up to those stronger and more magical than she, Eliza learns her limitations and begins to learn her powers as well. We are left in the end with her safe with her family: for now.

Reviews of the other two books in the series: The Unmaking (2013) and  Bone, Fog, Ash & Star (2014)

The Last Dragonslayer (2010), by Jasper Fforde

Fforde-DragonslayerI read the first five of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series as they came out in the early years of this millennium (I had to say that!), and was thrilled by the irreverent humour, the originality of concept, and the artfully handled literary allusions. “But,” I thought to myself, “these cannot be literature for the average young adult, for the simple reason that they require an extensive background in the classics of English literature.” What a shame, as I know my teenagers would love the humour and the disruption of readers’ expectations that Fforde revels in.  So finally, in 2010, Fforde gratified my hopes, and produced his first YA novel. The Last Dragonslayer reveals the refusal to conform to readers’ expectations and narrative conventions, but is playing with a sub-genre more popular among child and young adult readers: fantasy, magic, and witchcraft. The tropes Fforde plays with will be recognizable to any readers familiar with Harry Potter, or Diana Wynne-Jones’s work, or Susan Cooper’s, Lloyd Alexander’s, Michael Ende’s, Cornelia Funke’s, Christopher Paolini’s, Chris D’Lacey’s… the list goes on.

The story centres around the Kazam Mystical Arts Management company, currently run by the “apprentice” Jennifer Strange, an orphan indentured to the owner, Mr. Zambini, who has mysteriously disappeared. Kazam’s business is to rent out sorcerers and other individuals adept at what magic there is left in the world: for magic is quickly being depleted as the dragons slowly die out. The last dragon is aging, and the magical world is in upheaval. Fforde constructs a world in which magic is an inherent part of consensus reality, woven through the day-to-day complications and frustrations of contemporary middle-class life: the combination is sardonic, and hilarious.

Part of the history of magic in the Kingdom of Hereford, in the Ununited Kingdoms, where Kazam is located, are the magical creatures created before such sorcery was outlawed. The fiercest of these is the quarkbeast: “a small, hyena-shaped creature that is covered in leathery scales and often described as: One-tenth Labrador, six-tenths velociraptor and three-tenths kitchen food blender” (Song of the Quarkbeast 87). You cannot train a quarkbeast: it chooses its owner. Or not. Wild quarkbeasts are rare, and hunted much as lions or grizzlies are in our world: as trophies. Quarkbeasts are also “fiercely loyal” (120), affectionate, and “for all their fearsome looks … obedient to a fault” (94), with a “placid nature” (5) that is belied by their appearance. It is not their fault that the mere sight of one sends fear into the hearts of even the bravest; in fact, Jennifer’s “might have been so unaware [of his fearsome appearance] that he wondered why people always ran away screaming” (6). That Jennifer Strange has The Quarkbeast as her companion is a clue to the reader, as well as those around her, that she is something more than an unmagicked apprentice—which of course she also is. We like Jennifer, her fortitude and refusal to be cowed by disreputable but powerful political forces, but we love the Quarkbeast.

Jennifer Strange, prophesy says, is destined to be a key player in the political and magical situation developing in the Ununited Kingdoms. Ultimately, she has to make choices that pit her moral integrity against the financial security of those who depend upon her. The situation is sufficiently complex that readers can not necessarily anticipate her responses, and what seems to be the wrong choice turns out (in true Jasper Fforde style) to be not only right but essential.