Source of book: Audiobook from the library
There has been a trend over the last, say, 40 or so years, to turn tropes on their heads. One of these has been to repurpose - to redeem, so to speak - the Witch. No longer a byword for evil of the worst kind, a menace to children, in league with the devil, she is at minimum more complex and human. In many cases, she is the greatest force for good in a community.
There is a lot of truth to this transformation. An honest analysis of the history of witch burning - and let’s call it what it is: murder - reveals that “witches” generally fell into two categories. The one was the elderly woman with no relatives to defend or avenge her. She was viewed as a drain on the community resources. Rather than support her (say, through the poor laws), it was easier to imagine her malignant and murder her. Not a particularly savory human trait on display there.
The second sort of historical “witch” is even more intriguing. Throughout history, there have been women who refused to kowtow to the patriarchy, who served as the physicians of the community, healing with pharmaceutical herbs, providing contraceptives (and yes, abortifacients too - this was all women’s work for millennia), delivering babies, and so on. One can trace these sorts of women (very often called “wise women”) from the dawn of human history to modern times. The Florence Nightingale sorts who stood up to chauvinist doctors and provided far better care than they did. Although nursing is no longer a solely female profession, it is still the nurses - not the doctors - who do the hard work of medical care.
Sadly, the “wise women” always existed in uncomfortable tension with the patriarchal powers of society. So, from time to time, one would be murdered as a “witch.” That way, the balance of power could be maintained, and the healers would live in fear, and thus stay in their place. Several of these women are mentioned in Uppity Women of Medieval Times - success and popularity were dangerous to women.
I start off with this, because The Girl Who Drank the Moon is one of those books in which a witch is a healer. (Although the best, for my money, is still Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series - they are a great crash course in ethics for kids.) This book is also quite political - in a good way - without being particularly didactic.
The setting is a rather dystopian society. The Protectorate is a city with a problem. There is a witch living in the forest, and she will destroy the city unless a baby is left for her in the woods each year - presumably for her to devour. This belief is fostered by superstitious stories passed from generation to generation. But it is also enforced by the powers that be: the all-male council of elders, and the all-female quasi-military force. (They are kind of a cross between nuns and ninjas…) So, every year, the youngest child in the city is brutally ripped from his or her parents, and left to die in the forest. Thus, the witch is appeased, and the city lives another year.
But this is not, of course, the reality. There actually IS a witch, but she is rather puzzled by the whole “abandoned baby in the forest” thing. She comes every year, takes the baby, and places it for adoption with a family on the other side of the mountains - communities for which she serves as healer and therapist. Sure, she probably should have inquired as to why they were abandoned, but the Protectorate was obscured in a fog, both literal, and magical (a fog of sorrow.)
This goes on for some time - 500 or so years - before things change. First, Xan (the witch), takes a shine to a particular baby, Luna, and accidentally feeds her moonlight instead of starlight, which “enmagicks” her. At the same time, Antain, a young man who is expected to eventually take his place as an elder, is traumatized by Luna’s abduction. Her mother refuses to peacefully surrender the child, instead going mad in the aftermath. She is locked in a tower, and Antain is haunted by the scene. He investigates, and is cut on his face by a flock of paper birds created by the mad woman. He eventually marries, and his child in turn is due to be sacrificed.
In the meantime, Luna has grown up raised by Xan, a primeval swamp monster named Glurg (who is a sensitive poet, and may be both one with creation and its creator - it’s a paradox to say the least), and a pocket sized dragon. Xan locks her magic inside her, lest she hurt someone or herself (which is a legitimate fear), until she turns 13. In that way, Luna’s discovery of her magic self is connected with puberty - and is just as awkward.
As the book proceeds, the mystery of the past unfolds. All of the characters - not just Luna - has some part of their memories locked away. Their sorrow, in particular, cannot be recalled. As the fog lifts - literally and figuratively - a past tragedy is remembered. And it becomes clear that the real power behind the Protectorate is a “sorrow eater,” the evil counterpart to the Witch, who lives on the pain of others.
There are some pretty heady political lessons here. How does oppression work? Why do people tolerate it? How is blind allegiance created? How are people prevented by fear and violence from thinking for themselves? And, of course, the necessity of the good people of the world to challenge not just the status quo, but the powers of hate.
There are some interesting things about this book that I think make it better than average. First, the author is pretty good about showing, rather than telling. The beliefs of the Protectorate are revealed through a series of “fairy tales” told to children. These open the book, and recur throughout at crucial junctures. Also in this vein, the author allows the full horror of the child sacrifice to be felt. Nothing graphic, but it is clear that the Elders believe that the child is eaten by wild animals - and that they perpetuate the sacrifices because they know it maintains them in power.
I also appreciated that the book is told from various points of view. And they are all sympathetic in some way. That includes the point of view of Sister Ignatia, the villain. Barnhill makes it clear that she too has her hidden pain, and came to be who she is because her own trauma.
That said, it is the trajectories of Sister Ignatia and the chief Elder that are by far the most chilling part of the story. Both of them are so wedded to their power that they cannot, even at the end when their powers have been stripped, repent. They end their days in confinement, cut off from nearly all human contact, their pride having sentenced them to their own private hells. They cannot even admit that they were wrong, which is one thing that the better inhabitants of the book are willing to do. I do not pretend to be an expert on the afterlife, but this kind of matches my own (tentatively held) belief: there are many who, given the choice of repenting and apologizing as a condition of eternal life in the presence of God, will instead choose annihilation rather than bend. (For many from my own time and country, they will choose to not exist over having to be equals with brown-skinned people - I’m looking at you, Phyllis Schlafly…) I say this, not because of theology, but because of psychology. (And yes, I think C. S. Lewis was highly perceptive about this.)
One final thing merits some praise for this book. The ending is set up perfectly for the good people of the story to exact justice. Or revenge, perhaps. But they don’t. It is enough to stop the bad people from hurting everyone else. Mercy and grace are extended to all. Even the chief Elder and Sister Ignatia. But they cannot accept that grace, and choose their own annihilation. At the end of the story, I was strongly reminded of the ending of Les Miserables. Javert too cannot accept grace, because he refuses to extend it. And, like so many of Victor Hugo’s heroes, the heroes of this book become so much more heroic because of the grace they extend.
I found this book fascinating. Those who know the Western fairy tale tradition will find all kinds of “Easter Eggs” within the story. Likewise for those who know their Bibles. Obviously, Fundies will clutch their pearls at the idea of the opening of the Gospel of John being repurposed as an explanation as to how the primordial Chaos (the “bog monster”) became the world and the creator and the poem and the poet and everything. But for those not so obsessed with doctrinal purity, this mythology will, like fairytales and myths and allegories and parables around the world and throughout history, be another way of thinking about truth - a poetic and figurative representation of some deeper truth about reality - and ourselves.
Overall, a better than average book, with memorable characters, a good story, and thoughtful explorations of deeper truths.
Oh yeah, this is the Newbery Award winner for 2017.
I first read this poem in high school, and it has always stuck with me.
My father, that hero with the sweetest smile,
followed by a single hussar whom he loved above all others
for his great bravery and his great height,
was riding, the evening after a battle,
across the field covered with the dead on whom night was falling.
He thought he heard a weak noise in the shadow.
It was a Spaniard from the routed army
who was bleeding, dragging himself by the road.
groaning, broken, ashen, and more than half dead,
and who said, "Drink! Drink, for pity's sake!"
My father, moved, handed to his faithful hussar
a canteen of rum that hung from his saddle,
and said, "Here, give the poor wounded man something to drink."
Suddenly, at the moment when the hussar bent
leaning over him, the man, a kind of Moor,
seized a pistol that he was still gripping,
and aimed at my father's forehead crying "Caramba!"
The bullet passed so near that his hat fell off
and his horse shied backwards.
"All the same give him something to drink," said my father.