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Fiction Review: The Witch's Boy

The Witch's Boy
Michael Gruber
2005 Harper Tempest
377 pages

Just when you think you've had enough of novels based on fairy tales, along comes another book with just the right set of twists to make you know there's always room for one more.

The Witch's Boy is the tale of an ugly boy called Lump. Adopted by a witch when he was a baby, Lump has a rather unusual childhood — he is spoiled by his mother, nursed by a bear, and tutored by a demon, and his few playmates are creatures of the forest whose languages he understands. He does not know that anything is amiss or that he is one very unattractive child until a disastrous encounter with other humans. The encounter changes everything and Lump becomes ugly in more ways than just his looks. It takes him a long time and many misadventures before he learns that kindness, love and the right sort of magic win out over cruelty and revenge any day.

Gruber cleverly sets most of the known fairy tales in an unusual light in this beautifully written story. It took me some time into the book to realize which specific fairy tale Lump was drawn from — and I was delighted when it finally dawned on me.

Other familiar tales crop up through characters and stories. For example: Hansel and Gretel are adults who befriend Lump, the witch, and her cat in a time of need. And Cinderella, it turns out, has mental health problems, which saddens her kindly stepmother and stepsisters.

What really kept me from being able to put this book down, though, was the character of the witch. She is never called anything but the witch — names are too important to just toss out. But the witch is both more than and less than what she seems. Magic, ritual, ties to the Earth and the Great Mother are all important to her, but she learns some new lessons when she decides to accept the ugly baby left on her doorstep as her own child. Good intentions and a mother's love are surely wonderful things, but her inexperience causes some grievous mistakes. A cat who becomes human (and hates it!) is devoted to the witch, annoyed by Lump, and more than willing to advise on child rearing and when to dump an ungrateful child. In the end, however, the witch finds just how much she is willing to sacrifice as a mother and what love can eventually accomplish.

The Witch's Boy is considered juvenile fiction, but I found it to be much more of an adult tale, full of magic, hurt, injustice, sacrifice and the fruits of unconditional love. The witch is a character many of us can enjoy and relate to on several levels while engrossed in this fascinating story.

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