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Review by Sage

Imbolc 2003, Vol 2-2
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book cover with dark-haired Juniper and Wise Child

Wise Child
a novel by Monica Furlong

This IRA-CBC Young Adults' Choice and ALA Notable Book will delight the young and the not-so-young reader. For me, it fell in the book-readability category of "don't want to put it down 'til it's done."

For those of us who have wished that we were raised in the old ways, this book will fuel our imaginings.

The synopsis from the back cover:

In a remote Scottish village a girl called Wise Child is abandoned by her parents and taken in by Juniper, a sorceress [sic]. Under Juniper's kind but stern tutelage, Wise Child thrives. She learns reading, herbal lore, and even the beginnings of magic. Then Wise Child's natural mother -- the "black" witch Maeve -- reappears, offering the girl a life of ease and luxury. Forced to choose between Maeve and Juniper, Wise Child comes to discover both her true loyalties and her growing supernatural powers. By this time, though, Maeve's evil magic, a mysterious plague, and the fears of superstitious villagers combine to place Wise Child and Juniper in what may be inescapable danger....

While I didn't particularly like the good witch/bad witch portrayal of Wise Child's adopted mother (Juniper) and her birth mother (Maeve), I loved reading about a young girl's magickal education under the loving, enlightened education of an adept, a village healer who is privately respected and publicly feared because of the village priest's disapproval of her.

Wise Child's perception of Juniper, before living with her:

Juniper was different from us. In the first place, she came from another country -- Cornwall....

...she did not live as our women did. She was what in our language was called a cailleach -- it meant a single woman, but more than a single woman, one who had something uncanny about her.

The most important thing that separated Juniper from the rest of us was that she did magic. When we called her a cailleach, what we really meant was that she was a witch, a sorceress, probably in the pay of the Devil. Proof was that she did not come to Mass on Sundays, when the priest held aloft the bread and the wine. She came to the village when people were desperate and did not care anymore if Fillan priest disapproved of them. When a man whose wife had labored in vain could not stand it any longer, when someone was near to death after an accident, when a child was delirious with fever, when a woman had an evil spirit, they sent for Juniper; and whatever she did (and no two people ever agreed about what she did), as often as not the patient recovered. It did not seem to make us grateful; on the contrary, it only increased our feeling that she was a witch.

Though Wise Child initially fears Juniper, she soon learns that her keeper, while strict about chores and learning, is loving, nurturing, and benevolent. When Juniper has to leave in the middle of the night for a very long trip, Wise Child wakes alone and lonely. When she goes downstairs in the morning:

My breakfast was laid out on the table, with a tiny pink flower in the middle of my plate. It was very consoling, as real as a kiss.

This book was written by someone who knows the territory. It is full of lore -- herbal, magickal, cultural. With Wise Child:

  • We explore Juniper's herb garden, one that "made a circle or wheel with her house at the center (with) herbs in neat sections of the wheel, fenced in by little hedges of their own."
  • We spend a long day cutting peat for our winter fires.
  • We leave "fairy food" out nightly (and learn later that it's for the village outcast, the leper Cormac).
  • We learn that Juniper refers to herself as a doran, from the Gaelic word dorus, "an entrance or way in," and that a doran is someone who has found "a way in" to seeing or perceiving "the energy" or "the pattern."
  • We make a "disgusting" smelly ointment that we stir for hours over a cauldron in Juniper's kitchen. Later, when the ointment is spread all over Wise Child's body, we fly on Juniper's broomstick, accompanied by her cat Pearl, to an enormous stone circle on an island across the water, one we return to later for the Feast of Beltane (but by the usual means of transportation).

When Wise Child discovers a cave that had, in an earlier era, been used for making sacrifices to the gods, she learns about wrong use of magic. Juniper says:

There are people, you know, who are not trying to live in the rhythm, but just to control other people, to make them feel guilty or do what they want....

"Sorcerers, you mean?" (asks Wise Child).

That sort of person. It doesn't matter what you call them. Once you start controlling other people, whatever your motive, you become a sort of sorcerer. Those people are not on the side of life, Wise Child, but they are powerful.

This book, with all its warmth between Wise Child and Juniper, is not all fluff and feel-good. When crop failure, a hard winter, and smallpox make the already hard life of the villagers even harder, the priest begins to blame Juniper's witchcraft. Juniper is jailed; Wise Child is detained and questioned; the Inquisition threatens both of them. Do they survive? You'll have to read the book to find out, but I'll tell you this -- Wise Child lives up to her name, both parts of it.

Graphics Credit
+ scan of book cover by Sage
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