Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Brixen Witch by Stacy DeKeyser

As a foreigner living abroad in Taiwan, I find local superstitions fascinating. The first baseball game I went to had a caffeine-wired hyperman using a microphone and cheering in Mandarin while fans echoed back his words all the while pounding their thunderstix in ear-deafening patterns. One time, hyperman screamed at us to jump to our feet and shout a repetitive line such a "kill, kill, kill" (similar to our "fight, fight, fight" chant not meant maliciously) as the player took his stance at home plate. The batter got a double and hyperman told us to stay standing and do the exact same thing because we brought the player "good luck." A fan interpreted this for me and I watched batter number two strike out much to the disappointment of hyperman who had to let us sit down. All in good fun. Superstitions pervade all cultures and while many are harmless, others are not. History is full of witch hunts that resulted in innocent people being murdered or blamed for natural disasters or for something bad happening in a village. In The Brixen Witch nothing so dire or grim as killings happen, but I did like the author's exploration of this theme as the Brixen villagers tried to blame an innocent man for a rat infestation. The plot is a twist on The Pied Piper of Hamelin with some excellent messages: the consequences of stealing, the politics of a small town, folklore and its traditions, and the courage to correct mistakes, to name a few. Throw in great tension, pacing, characters, and humor and voila! have a terrific book.

The start begins with twelve-year-old Rudi hurdling down the mountain and slamming in through the front door claiming a witch is after him. The adults think he's being a typical over-imaginative boy and tease him when he cries "Witch" by asking "Which what?" He's scolded for not bringing home rabbits for dinner and tracking mud into the house. Rudi sees a mysterious face at his window after stealing the coin, hears wailing and singing day-after-day resulting in nightmares and misery. His Grandma Oma notices the singing too and asks Rudi if he took anything from the witch's lair. Rudi thinks, "It's bad luck to talk of such things." The author repeats this line 15 times to emphasize different messages and in this instance, Rudi doesn't want to tell Oma the truth. Next, Oma repeats the phrase as she is discussing the witch, which suggests she knows more than she is telling Rudi. Later, it foretells Rudi's job as future keeper of Brixen's folklore and other times it brings comic relief.

Oma tells Rudi to return whatever he took and he tries to the next day but botches it by getting stuck in a storm and losing the coin. Winter comes and he can't do anything until springtime. He continues to have nightmares, but they suddenly stop and he thinks all is well; that the witch found her coin. But then hoards of rats overwhelm Brixen village making Rudi wonder if the infestation is from the witch or a natural occurence. He discovers it isn't natural but is coming from the witch and her servant. When the children of the village disappear, Rudi is convinced he is to blame and he seeks out the witch to make things right.

The tension in this story hinges on not knowing if the witch is either good or bad and the author keeps the reader guessing until the end. The beginning had me wondering if the witch was imagined or real. My uncertainty continued as I tried to figure out whether or not the witch was working with her assistant or if he was rogue; plus Oma seemed to know the witch. Add to that a mysterious quest and a good mix of creepiness and humor and you have a nice page turner. I have found that when authors retell folktales they can oftentimes be too predictable because the outcome is already known; hence, it is essential that the plot twists keep the pace moving along with the reader's interest. The witch, her assistant, Oma, and the rat-catcher succeed in doing just that and I enjoyed the creative retelling of The Piped Piper of Hamlin. I did get confused during a few transitions and would have liked the pacing slowed down just a bit so I could orient myself in the setting. The time leap from winter to spring and search party episode were a bit awkward. I wasn't clear why Marco and Otto went up the mountain with Rudi. Neither instance takes away from the story but I did have to reread those sections. Of course, I'm not a detail-minded person so take that for what it's worth.

The characters are nicely developed and there is a mixture of adult and child humor. Rudi and Oma have a fun relationship and I particularly like the episode where Rudi tries to hide his nightmares from Oma who teases him. "Oma rocked in her chair and studied the rafters. 'Let's see... you mutter such things as Go away and No no no and Take it!'" Sometimes children don't realize they need adult help as is the case with Rudi. Oma says, "Perhaps it's time you sought the counsel of someone older and wiser than yourself." To which Rudi says, "Do you know someone like that?" Oma tapped him on the head. "Is it your luck that's bad, or just your sense? I'm talking about my own self here." I laughed pretty hard at that one. Herbert Wenzel has his own  unique voice and uses ferrets to catch rats. When he gives Rudi the job as assistant, Rudi reflects that he likes how the others in town respect him. He likes the responsibility of having a job and becoming more confident and growing up a bit. Rudi is also kind to the younger children in the village. He looks out for them like an older brother and I liked the part where he gets disgusted with his arguing peers and jump-ropes with the young girls enjoying their adulation. He is uncertain whether or not his peers will laugh at him but he's feeling confident since given a job and is beginning to grow up and not worry as much about peer pressure.

Adults don't take children seriously at times throughout the story. When eight-year-old Susanna Louisa asks Rudi about the witch's chair, he decides to ask Oma because she is always truthful to him. He observes that young and old people tell the truth, but during the "middle years of life" people don't. If the adults had taken Rudi seriously they could have worked together to solve the problem of the rats. Instead only Marco and Otto decided to help Rudi. Kids will relate to this because they oftentimes don't feel they have much say in an adult world, and it is a good reminder to adults to take kids more seriously.
Oma and the rat-catcher know how to handle people and Rudi observes their actions noting their manipulation of people and opinions. While Oma suggests the mayor first handle the problem of getting a rat-catcher, she makes him think he came up with the idea. The rat-catcher charges per rat, but because it is so hard to catch them when they count one bag he gives them a discount. He also has the people help him drown the rats so there are witnesses to his work. As the villagers are trying to decide what to do about the rats in a town hall meeting, the dynamics of public opinions swaying others and superstitions playing a part in decisions was very interesting. The villagers are upset about the rats and decide to blame the rat-catcher. Rudi publicly defends the rat-catcher pointing out that they saw him drown the rats and vouching for his honesty. This is a great message about knowing when it is important to speak up. When the meeting turns ugly, Rudi finds the courage to confess in public taking the coin and causing the village rat problem. Interestingly, the adults just ignore him and say he is a boy talking nonsense.

I have had many conversations with grade 4 teachers who want books that have depth but are not dense and littered with words young readers can't decipher. The Brixen Witch satisfies this need and I highly recommend it. At 208 pages it has enough action, character development, and themes to satisfy both teacher and student. The plot is not dark and while many ideas are complex they are presented with humor and are not heavy-handed making it age appropriate. A great addition to any library. Can you hear me? I'm banging my thunderstix together cheering this one on.

4 Smileys

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