Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book Review: The Time of the Witch

A Fair Trade Book

Title: The Time of the Witch 

Author: Mary Downing Hahn

Author's web site: http://www.hmhbooks.com/features/mdh/

Date: 1982

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin / Avon

ISBN: 0-380-71116-8

Length: 171 pages

Quote: “I know you’re not happy about the divorce, but there’s nothing anyone can do to change it.”

But what if there is something someone can do...something even worse than the divorce? When their divorcing parents send Laura and Jason to stay with their aunt, two of the aunt’s neighbors seem to think something can be done. Laura’s aunt insists that witches can’t change things by casting spells, but the town's two flakiest characters, Maude and Twyla, seem to believe otherwise. Both Maude and Twyla describe themselves as witches. Twyla, the nice witch, doesn’t try to control other people’s lives and marriages. Maude, the wicked witch who’s always had a grudge against Laura’s grandmother, tells Laura she can do something...and maybe, Mary Downing Hahn seems to be saying, she does something to bring the parents together. Maybe she causes Jason to come down with meningitis.

Hahn cleverly blurs the question of whether she thinks it’s possible that Maude made Jason ill, by her spell-casting ritual or by any other means, in order to emphasize her point. Laura can’t understand why her parents want a divorce, but she has to try to “accept” it and be happy with it (at some time in the twentieth century, for some people, happiness became a duty rather than a pleasure). There is no ethical way to prevent the divorce.

I can’t say that I’m happy about this view of divorce; that it makes The Time of the Witch a book I would give to my niece and nephews. Granted, sometimes divorce really is the only way modern society has to deal with people who would not have been allowed to live in traditional societies. If I knew a little boy whose father had abused him, or his mother or his siblings or his grandparents, I’d give him a book that says that nothing can be done about divorce.

But in this book the clue we’re given to the parents’ divorce is that Daddy thinks he would rather live with another woman than with Mommy, and although that kind of divorce is common these days, it can be prevented. Not, of course, by the children. By the other woman, who could have said, “I will not let you leave your wife for me. If you leave her, I’ll move out of town.” Or by Daddy, who could have said, “I made a vow to the mother of my children, and I am going to keep it, even if the only way I can leave this other woman alone is to quit my job and take one that pays less for a while.”

Maybe it’s better for children to try to “accept” divorces than to try to play counsellors to their parents, but my feeling is that, if adults were a little less willing to “accept” divorces, a lot of divorces would never become final. I have seen no harm, and much good, done when adults say to friends, “The vows you took said ‘until death do us part,’ not ‘for as long as I feel like it.’ Yes, 'until death do us part' can be hard. Hard things are useful like flint and beautiful like diamonds. Are you an honorable man or woman, or not?”

Sometimes it doesn’t even hurt to go into particulars, if we know them well: “I know that both of you have done things that caused a lot of guilt, that you have become fat and depressed and you feel that you’ve hit a dead end on the job. Guilt can be a factor in that kind of problems. A counsellor who believes that ethical principles are real, who can help you think about ways to make restitution and receive forgiveness instead of just trying to get away from the feeling of guilt, might help both of you.” 

This may not be what we would say to every divorcee we know. We need to be tactful and understand that sometimes “irreconcilable differences” is the only way someone can bring herself to say “S/He is a serial murderer.” Still, we don't need to put up with nonsense about adults being unable to resist every physical attraction they feel.

Given that Hahn hasn’t given her fictional couple any grounds for divorce other than an extramarital physical attraction, hasn’t mentioned anything about Daddy and Mommy fighting all the time or going to doctors or having trouble with the police, is this really a book about divorce I would recommend for middle school children? It is not...for the ones who are struggling with ethical issues. It is a book about ethics that I would recommend that high school readers read critically, or else it’s a trivial horror story that I would recommend for a Halloween sleepover party. And yes, although the vocabulary is accessible to children, the story is told well enough to give adults a healthy shudder; anyone who’s seriously afraid of Maude has other emotional issues, but a little real horror at where meddling and manipulation can lead, at the idea of degenerating into a moral equivalent of Maude, won’t do us any harm.