Book Review: The Witches

I know most of you can empathize, but it has been a busy season. I hosted Thanksgiving for thirteen and I go all out (and then multiply what you were thinking by ten), my daughter’s birthday fell the day before this year, we are still in a pandemic, I have Christmas to make happen on a budget and for two kids plus a large extended family, I love to bake for others, I had to wrap up homeschool and co-op for the calendar year and rehearse and record for our church’s TV Christmas Eve service, and, quite frankly, we have our own personal stuff going on amidst all of this. So that’s where I’ve been. (I started NaNoWriMo, again, and strong, again, but I am always amazed that anyone ever chose November to write a novel. The first week or two—fine. But then the second half of November? Fuggetaboutit. Why not September or October? Or any of the months from January to May? The holiday season and the summer is always the busiest.)

So I can’t believe it, but I still have reviews waiting to be written from Halloween. (I also have Thanksgiving and Christmas waiting in the wings, so I’ll rush through the holidays before the new year.) One of the books I read for Halloween this year was (a re-read of) The Witches by Roald Dahl. I have done most of my Roald Dahl reading as an adult, but I just love his stuff. Matilda is my favorite, and I have long thought The Witches was my least favorite. I dunno. I think I would now switch that to The Twits. The Witches—though still not my favorite—isn’t quite as disappointing as I remember. I think there are a few issues here that get in the way of Dahl’s usually magical, kid-geared edgy, fantastic writing and story-telling.

The Witches is a dark, children’s fantasy story about an English boy (no name given) whose parents die (no surprise there) and he moves in with his grandmother in Norway. According to the parent’s will, however, they have to return to England for his education but Grandmother brings her Norwegian knowledge of witches with her and makes sure he is also educated on that front. When the pair vacation at a swanky hotel, the boy must use the knowledge she has given him to figure out that they are in the presence of the Grand High Witch and the annual conference of English witches, the scheme the witches are brewing, and how to escape with his life and—hopefully—the lives of the children of England.

Here are the issues: one is how scary it is. For some people, writing about the occult or any sort of witch is going to be a bridge too far for them. More generally, many kids are going to be scared by this book because it’s about witches killing little kids. Of course, Dahl presents things in his own completely forward and yet funny and child-oriented way (and kids are squished or vanished or turned into chickens instead of whatever gruesome things might be more realistic). Two, I’m sure there are people who object to this book on the basis of how the witches are portrayed. Sure, there are modern people who call themselves witches and they are not bald, cruel, or child-hunting, but “witches” is one of those words that is stretched too far, anyhow. Witches are, technically, female humans who do magic and so it can refer to fantastical, bad magical ladies or fantastical magical ladies in a more neutral sense or it can refer to any number of historical groups of women through time. Obviously, this book is a fantasy about witches of a certain stereotypical vein and Dahl gives them random flourishes to make the whole thing more interesting. (And now that I think about it, some people might get riled up about how this book deals with more serious themes, like kidnapping or missing children. But that is Dahl’s usual: taking something real and serious and giving it a spin that both drives it home and makes it light enough to talk about. Not that he would put it that way. I more get the sense from him that he just wants to tell a great story and he doesn’t care what feathers he’s ruffling. When the book was published in the 80s there was also objections made regarding misogyny, which I could see but not necessarily agree with.) And three, the ending is a bit nontraditional and can read as unfulfilling/disappointing. He does things along the way to get the reader ready for this, but I am still hoping for something else every time.

And still, the story is riveting, the imagination soaring, the chuckles abundant. Dahl is a master of story-telling and this story is not exception. It’s not my favorite and it probably won’t be yours, but as for a fun Halloween read for heartier families, this is a good family story.  

MOVIES

There is a 1990 version starring Angelic Huston that gets decent to good reviews but the cinematic effects are quite outdated. The newest version, which I reviewed HERE, was not well received despite all the anticipation, though the CG is great.

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