Nancy Springer, The Hex Witch of Seldom (Baen, 1988; Firebird, 2002)
One of the more hilarious moments of the movie The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is the song 'Puberty Blues'. It is, of course, a farce, but what makes the song so hilarious is that all of us on the other side of puberty remember what that time of life is like, and so we can laugh a bit at it. But there's always a bit of bitter irony in the laughing: coming of age is not easy, and we would at the same time wish it on no one, but want no one to ever be denied the passage.
So we have in literature the 'coming of age' novel, wherein the protagonist stands at the crossroads of some important life event, where he or she must make a choice, and usually that choice involves giving up the selfish ways of childhood and sacrificing oneself in some way to solve the dilemma. 'Coming of age' novels are a dime a dozen in the children's literature section of a bookstore, but it takes a good author to write a book that is not trite, but treats the protagonist as a person on both sides of the transition. Nancy Springer's The Hex Witch of Seldom is just one such novel.
Bobbi Yandro is the 16-year-old daughter of a poet who died in the Viet Nam war before she was born. Her mother couldn't handle the loss and had to be committed to an insane asylum, so Bobbi lives with her paternal grandfather in the Dutch backcountry of Pennsylvania.
On her 16th birthday, her grandfather gives her her father's papers and belongings. She finds in the chest a poem her father had written about a black horse, which creates in her a longing to own her own horse. Her grandfather takes her to the government paddocks and she chooses, against her grandfather's wishes, a black, walleyed stallion. The stallion refuses to obey anyone except Bobbi, and then only reluctantly. When her grandfather decides that Shane, the stallion, must be castrated, Bobbi sets him free and then follows him. Together they come across Hazel Fenstermacher, the Hex Witch of Seldom. Witchie, as she's known to friends (a pun on her first name, she explains), helps cure Shane of a cracked hoof and explains to Bobbi that she is part of the Circle of Twelve, archetypes whose powers are manifest in all of us. Shane also is one of the Twelve, a man who has chosen to take the form of a horse, to allow him to wander free. Shane, however, is quickly kidnapped by the Trickster and Bobbi and Witchie must set out to free him. Before it is all over, Bobbie must decide as an adult how to use her power of the Sight, and how to give of herself to save Shane.
The strength of this book comes not from its plot, which is not horribly original, but from the strength of the characters, especially Bobbi. For in Bobbi, we have a young lady who both before and after her 'coming of age' experience is strong-willed and assertive. Too often in this type of literature, the child starts out whining and unlikable, and the coming of age teaches the child the wrongness of his or her behavior. In Bobbi, however, we have a more realistic child: longing to know her place in the world, strong minded, yet because of that determination, she makes mistakes because she does not think of the effect they will have on others. As Bobbi matures through the course of the novel, it does not come as a great surprise, but rather as a natural outcome of her personality. That is, character comes from a gradual process of growth, punctuated by crisis moments, but it does not emerge full-grown, as in many 'coming of age' novels, like Venus from the ocean.
The fantastic in this novel is used well, integrated into both the story and the thematic exploration of Bobbi's coming of age. As it should be in quality fantasy literature, the fantastic does not feel tacked on as an afterthought, but is integral to the telling of the story. Nowhere does it become 'mere escapism', dragging the story's theme into implausibility. As with well-written literature, the reader can, by story's end, feel like he or she has walked a mile in someone else's shoes and has grown from that experience.
Nancy Springer is a skilled, accomplished author, and Firebird books is to be commended for bringing back into print one of her earlier and better works.
[Matthew Scott Winslow]