Wednesday, November 6, 2013

November Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

Well, I missed last month's edition of the Book Review Club entirely, because I'm scum. But I'm delighted to return with a lovely, post-Halloween witch story, perfect for a rainy November afternoon. Enjoy, and don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews. 

by Stacy DeKeyser
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2012

A fairy-tale retelling with a firm grasp on reality—what more could you want?

From its first chapter, Stacy DeKeyser’s 2012 middle-grade fantasy THE BRIXEN WITCH plunges you into life’s harsh details: If you allow yourself to be distracted by a golden guilder, you don’t kill any rabbits and your family has barley soup for supper. Again.

Also, if you’re infested with rats, a ferret’s a better bet than a guy with a fiddle.

As the rats would indicate, this is a retelling of “The Pied Piper of Hamlin,” except the piper’s a fiddler and there are sensible character motivations lacking in the original. But this is a story with texture and twists, mostly concerning a witch who isn’t what she seems and who has very bad taste in servants.

The best part of the book is Rudi, the farmer’s son whose life is nearly ruined by that golden guilder. He’s a lovely character, an earnest, well-meaning kid who makes a big mistake and then struggles to undo it. Rudy comes upon the guilder while hunting on the Berg, the mountain that overshadows his village, Brixen, and the home of a legendary witch. The coin in his pocket, he’s chased down the mountain and into his house by what might be a shrieking gale—or maybe the shrieking is something much, much worse.

Harrowed by nightmares, a tune that won’t quit, and—perhaps—an evil face at his window, Rudi learns from his grandmother that he’s done the unthinkable: He’s inadvertently stolen some of the Brixen Witch’s treasure.  Oma—who knows more than she lets on—bundles him out the door at the crack of dawn to return the guilder, but he loses it in an avalanche. The tune and the nightmares end, and the face does not return, so Rudi persuades himself that the witch has her coin back and all’s good.

Then the rats appear.

There’s a brief, utterly charming interlude during which we experience village life with all its characters and disagreements. We get to watch Rudi and a professional rat-catcher let loose the ferrets and rid the village of its scourge. But then the rats return and someone else—someone much, much worse—shows up with an offer the village can’t refuse.

Throughout, there’s a sure sense of the realities of life in an isolated mountain village, or anywhere for that matter. Food is hard to come by, illness can kill, and any unexpected expense can lead to hardship for an entire village. People, moreover, are unpredictable—that grumpy guy who keeps complaining about everything turns out to have your back. We won’t even get started about Oma and that witch.

The writing flows by without distracting your attention from the story, which is layered and lovely. Put this one on your early Christmas list.

Dear FCC: I bought this book because I’m going to be on a panel with the author (American Association of School Librarians, Hartford, CT, November 16). I had no idea I’d end up loving it. So sue me.