Every year the citizens of the protectorate sacrifice their youngest baby to the “witch,” who they believe lives in the forest. The problem is they’ve got the wrong witch. Every year, the witch who does live in the forest, Xan, travels to the sycamore grove to rescue a baby she believes has been abandoned. She places that baby with a new family in the free cities. This goes on and on until one year, Xan falls in love with the baby she rescues, accidentally “enmagicks” her, and then decides to raise her as her granddaughter. She names the baby Luna. Glerk the swamp monster and Fyrian the tiny dragon welcome Luna to their chosen family, and they all build a life together in their treehouse-swamp-forest home.
But the girl’s magic is too much for Xan to manage, so she binds it until Luna turns 13 years old. By the time that magic starts to emerge, however, the people of the protectorate have begun to rise up against the sacrificial system, Luna’s mother–who has never stopped searching for her–has found her, the local volcano is threatening to erupt, and everyone’s favorite woodcarver is on a quest to kill the witch.
But then Which witch? becomes a terribly important question.
In the opening few chapters of the book, I was intrigued enough to keep going, but I had NO IDEA what the book was about. In part, this was the rotating third-person close POV. Which character mattered seemed to shift quite a bit depending on point of view–and even though I was trying to follow the girl who drank the moon (Luna), the author often took us away from her to her hometown, the Protectorate. In addition, like the early chapters in many of the Harry Potter books, the adult points-of-view seemed as plentiful as the child points-of-view. The enormous cast, the seemingly endless voices, the four or five distinct storylines in and out of the early chapters — all of it tested my resolve to keep going.
It’s a Newbery! I’d tell myself.
But I don’t know what’s going on! I’d answer myself.
She wrote that kick ass essay on revision, I’d remind myself.
Oh, okay, I’d say. And read some more.
Then, on page 125, [spoiler in white ink; select to reveal –>] Antain is at the Tower when Ethyne is leaving the sisterhood, and the entire book clicked into place. I knew exactly what would happen and why we had been wandering from person to person for over a hundred pages. Suddenly, I was just as enmagicked as Luna. I wouldn’t have stopped reading the book if you had paid me to do it.
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve read it, now, and I’ve been meditating on it and thinking about it extensively. Some thoughts in no particular order:
1. The author, Kelly Barnhill, is intimately familiar with the work of René Girard, or I’ll eat my hat. The novel is basically a textbook for Girard’s scapegoating theory. Except ten times better than a textbook, obviously.
2. As an adoptive mother, I think that the story says a lot about adoption–I don’t know if this is intentional. But it is built in a way that honors all the sides of the adoptive triad: first families, new families, and adoptees. There is a fierceness in a mother’s search for her child, there are dreams woven into her grief, there are often threads of magic in which child lands with which family, and children get to create their own narrative no matter how any of the parents feel about it.
3. The message about adults not always telling the truth, or not telling the whole truth–and the children who see through their lies–resonates with the best and most classic of children’s literature. What I love about how Barnhill handled this element is that there are evil people who hide the truth because they want to hold on to power (like Elder Gherland), but there are also mostly-good people who hide the truth out of love and fear (like Xan). In classic books, the latter is often missing or replaced by adults who hide the truth because they doubt children’s capacity for understanding. To portray both the adult and the child with sovereignty, love, and dignity gives everyone complexity in all the right ways. None of the lying is exonerated–not for power or for love–but in this book, Luna knows the difference.
4. The power of women across generations–and particularly their political power against lies once they unite–is a powerful element to the story that surprised and delighted me. But there is also an image of what happens when that power is turned inward and feasts on the suffering of other women or is used to elevate oneself at the expense of ones sisters. As a result, the stronger together theme is reinforced on both sides.
5. The parallels between Luna’s magic/power emerging and adolescence is both intentional (I suspect) and quite evocative. In Luna’s story, to come of age is not just to come into responsibility and difficulty and grief, but to come into power. She reflects multiple times on the changes she’s experiencing, on the way she feels like a different person, a new girl, a stranger to herself and and yet not-a-stranger to herself. Dang.
6. On craft, the prose is crystal clear and perfect. It reads aloud beautifully. The magical system passes all of the Holly Black tests. The characters are finely and intricately drawn, with the kind of signal details that give them away (Fyrian’s singing, the madwoman’s paper birds, Gherland’s robes, etc.), and tiny gestures to the net of relationships that extend beyond what we see on the page. Plus, every character has their own recognizable voice; they never blur into one another. And the setting–it is imaginative and reflects the realities of Barnhill’s invented world with astonishing clarity.
This book is a masterpiece.