Earlier this week I read Kenneth Lillington’s An Ash-Blonde Witch (London: Faber & Faber, 1987), and it was great. I bought it on spec.—basically for the fabulous cover-art by Louise Brierley—because I could find out nothing about the author and only two short reviews of the book online (here and here). It is categorised in a few places as suitable for “junior and senior high readers,” which was only likely to encourage a fan of the Harry Potter and Sweep series, to say nothing of Twilight, Vampire Academy etc.
Sophie Margaret Oakroyd and her father arrive in the village of Urstwile. At first, the story seems to be set in the distant past because the characters talk as if they have walked straight out of a fairy-tale. It gradually becomes clear, however, that we are actually in a twenty-second century and that Urstwile is an ethnographic reserve: a sort-of academic Truman Show (1998) or Village (2004), except, in this case, none of the villagers are in on the secret. This primitive community has been watched at a distance by academics for decades, but Sophie’s father has been given the (very great) privilege of observing village life first-hand. So, Sophie and her father are beamed into a remote cottage and the scene is set for a short (its only 138 pages) and genuinely charming tale of “love and self-discovery.”
The village has a witch, Dorcas, a real nose-touching-chin hag: she cackles, curses, wears rags, can make trees dance and can fly on a broom. The village also has a prude, Prudence (of course), who is scandalised by the fact that the witch has not been burnt at the stake in the village square. Everyone is too scared to act except her, so she tries to stop Dorcas in her tracks by hammering a nail into her footprint. Prudence immediately becomes stuck fast to the hammer and no one can free her until Sophie happens by, and tries to help by commanding her to let go of the hammer.
As soon as Prudence is freed, everyone in the town assumes Sophie is a witch, more powerful than Dorcas. Since Sophie can’t really explain that she has simply used auto-suggestion she says nothing at all. Soon afterward she uses an aspirin and then hypnotism to help others and so her reputation, and her danger, grows.
Because Sophie is gorgeous, all the local boys are in love with her, and all the women hate her. Dorcas, the real witch, is also pretty unhappy, but uncertain whether to act against a possibly more-powerful foe. It is not long before a lynch-mob are stirred up and Sophie has to use her (perfectly commonplace, it seems) mind-over-matter powers to hop on a broom and join Dorcas by fleeing to safely.
It turns out that Dorcas’s hag-witch routine is just a show used to make a living and that her “hovel” is actually a delightful cottage inside, full of comforts: beautiful clothes, great food and treasures given to her by grateful members of the aristocracy. She is also plenty smart and soon warms to Sophie, whose technological magic she admires, and whose talk of science, cause-and-effect, auto-suggestion, etc. she is intrigued by.
Sophie discovers that Dorcas is an intelligent, sexually liberated and independent woman who had been ostracised by the villagers, and embraced the life as a witch for the freedom is brought her. Apparently, she is not even that old, she just has bad teeth! Sophie also realises that a bit of twenty-second century dental and cosmetic care and Dorcas would be very far from a hag. And so, after she has left Urstwile, and is given the opportunity to help Dorcas escape, she does so: Dorcas has her make-over and the whole sexy-witch/hag dichotomy is in pieces.
Now, I have left out entirely two things: the love triangle involving Sophie, Prudence and Simon; and the real supernatural elements: a whole range of minor demons. The first is used to satirise the emotionally empty “modern life” of uniformly beautiful, but undifferentiated and uninteresting men and women who casually engage in sex and send their children off to be raised elsewhere; and the second to satirise the blindness and intellectual complacency of the “scientific world” which is unable to see the real magic and the supernatural forces that stare them in the face. Most of the fun is in these two aspects of the story, which is why I have left them out, so do not hesitate to find yourself a copy of this book and read it. You will enjoy it.
Oh, and when you have read it, come back to this post, read the following and tell me what you think of it:
Witches such as … the two very different witches depicted in An Ash-blonde Witch, are positioned on the outside of both patriarchal institutional religion and patriarchal secular society, and they either practice or or move toward new versions of spirituality. What such a witch stands for is a neo-humanistic protest against postmodernism’s denial of ethical values and a resistance to late twentieth-century human indifference.
[From John Stephens, "Witch-Figures in Recent Children's Fiction: The Subaltern and the Subversive" in The Presence of the Past in Children's Literature, edited by Ann Lawson Lucas (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), 195–202.]