Nina Bawden: The Witch’s Daughter
Puffin Books 1969 (1966)
… little things are important. Even if they don’t always seem it. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. All the little bits don’t mean much on their own, till you fit them together to make a pattern.
—Tim, chapter 14
Makng a pattern. This is what the human brain is trying to do all the time in order to make sense of experiences. And that’s what the reader, in common with Tim in The Witch’s Daughter, is attempting with the seemingly random facts presented in its pages.
But life isn’t nice and ordered, is it? Sometimes the occasional facts refuse to fit the pattern, like odd socks in a drawer, or a misplaced piece in a jigsaw puzzle; and this novel, though it gives us a satisfying conclusion, doesn’t attempt to resolve all the loose ends. It a strange way, this gives it an authenticity and a realism rare in much children’s literature of this period.
And from the title you might be expecting a surfeit or at least a sufficiency of the supernatural but contrary to expectations this aspect is so muted as to cause you to doubt that it’s actually present. Nevertheless I think an underlying theme is sensitivity, a sensitivity which may include feelings and perceptions that everyday folk can be unaware of.
Young orphan Perdita (the name means ‘lost’) is suspected of being a witch’s daughter and therefore a social outcast from a tight-knit community on Skua. (We may imagine this last as a fictional compound of the Inner Hebridean island of Mull and its neighbour Staffa, site of the famous Fingal’s Cave.) Shunned by locals, she has only the arthritic housekeeper of the mysterious Mr Smith to look after her; and though Mr Smith tolerates her presence — he even tells her stories once in a while — she is left largely to her own devices in a decrepit house by a sea loch.
Into her life one day come some visitors disembarking from the occasional ferry that plies the islands west of Oban: a family of four and a man with some golf clubs (oddly, there are no golf courses on the island). The family interest her as there are two children — a boy a little older than herself and his younger sister, who is blind. We get to know not just Perdita quite well but also the boy, Tim, as we explore the relationships they have with parents, guardians, Mr Jones (he is the stranger with the golf clubs) and the owners of the island’s hotel.
We might have expected Nina Bawden to have gone full-on fantasy with a title like The Witch’s Daughter, perhaps even tying up all the loose ends as in a detective novel (because there is stolen treasure involved), but she doesn’t. This is a much more subtle novel than that. Nobody is quite as idealised or vilified as another children’s writer might have been tempted to do. Tim would like to be the heroic boy detective who solves the mystery but keeps coming up against hard reality. His sister Janey, compensating for her blindness, senses things which the sighted miss, but is this a case of extrasensory perception or a perfectly explicable ‘sixth sense’? Nevertheless this doesn’t stop the nine-year-old being a bit spoilt and prone to crowing about her accomplishments. The villains, meanwhile, have their soft spots which humanise them even as we decry their wicked deeds — we even feel sorry for them.
The most interesting character — for me, at least — is Perdita, whose origins are hinted at but never made clear. Unlettered, uneducated, she would love to go to school but is alienated from the local children who do go: she believes if she concentrates she can pass invisible amongst the villagers, and mostly does. Her relationships with her foster mother and Mr Smith are touching, her anxieties about her new found friends Janey and Tim understandable; and it’s easy for the reader to want to will her to succeed even though it remains touch-and-go till the end.
This is a delightful story, defying predictions and so making it, to my mind, a better novel. There is mystery: who exactly are Mr Smith and Mr Jones, and are these even their real names? There is suspense: will individuals survive perilous situations, and will we ever know for sure one way or another? There are echoes of the supernatural — a possible kelpie, for example — and of other narratives (Treasure Island, because there’s an island with treasure; Tom Sawyer and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen because there is a perilous journey through a cave, one like the famous cavern on Staffa Island; Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Winter’s Tale because illusion is a key element), all of which helps add a richness and enjoyment to the storytelling.
Even though they may not seem it, little things, as Tim says, are indeed important.
Mystery. Suspense. Thriller. Dark Fantasy. Gothic. Horror. Supernatural. Some of these categories allow this novel to fit the Readers Imbibing Peril XIV challenge, but as I’m definitely not taking part it’s irrelevant, isn’t it?
Huge thanks to Dale of Earth Balm Creative for passing on a copy of this