________________ CM . . . . Volume IX Number 12. . . . February 14, 2003

cover The Witches of Willowmere. (Willowmere Chronicles).

Alison Baird.
Toronto, ON: Penguin Canada, 2002.
208 pp., pbk., $18.00.
ISBN 0-14-131373-0.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Tom Knutson.

*** /4


Claire almost ran all the way back to Willowmere. Her head was in a whirl. There had to be some sort of explanation. There had to be. She was losing her grip on reality.

This is crazy! It can't be true. There's always a logical explanation, Dad says. Always, for everything. That can't be the same necklace. It just reminds me of the one I hallucinated. How could I have seen parts of someone else's life? And all that about the magic familiar, Leo... How could that be true? It's all crazy!

But hadn't she asked for this, in a way? From the first moment she saw the portrait, she had longed to know more about the long-dead girl. And her wish had been granted. Was it some kind of ESP? Did the portrait and the old stone lions contain some sort of psychic vibration, echoing events from the dead woman's life? Claire had heard of such things -- of people who claimed they could tell things about others just by touching their belongings. Or -- she gave an involuntary shiver -- was the house haunted, perhaps? Had the ghost of Alice Ramsay come to the New World along with these relics of her vanished Scottish home? And had her spirit somehow reached out across the centuries, to share the story of her life with Claire?

"No," she gasped through chattering teeth. "No...no."

She tore up the long, winding drive and, with some difficulty -- her hands were shaking -- unlocked the front door. She felt the familiar giddy sensation as she lurched into the hall. The pearl necklace, like the painting and the stone lions, had triggered a vision. She ran for the nearest chair in the drawing room and collapsed into it even as her eyes began to swim.

"No, please! Leave me alone..."

In many respects, 16-year-old Claire Norton is already alone. Her mother had disappeared months earlier, possibly to a new age cult on the west coast. Consequently, Claire's father is determined that his only child will inherit his strong sense of practicality and skepticism towards the supernatural. A self acknowledged outsider at school, Claire is aware that her dismissive attitude towards popular culture and her friends' new-found interest in witchcraft has added to her isolation. Still, Claire clings to her logical, common sense approach to life until one day when she attends a self-image seminar at the invitation of a teacher. At the end of the presentation, the facilitator, Dr. Myra Moore, catches Claire off guard by telling her that her mother is safe. Before the shaken Claire can pursue this comment, Myra hurriedly leaves the room.

     Determined to find out more, Claire pays a visit to Myra at her home. Ironically, Myra is the owner and sole resident of Willowmere, the stately old mansion whose grand architecture and beautiful gardens have long captured Claire's imagination. For Claire, it is the opportunity not only to learn more about Myra and any knowledge she has of Claire's mother, but also to hopefully find herself inside her fantasy home. While Myra has little to offer Claire about her mother, she does begin to teach Claire about wicca and witchcraft, and the difference between the spiritual practice of worshiping the earth and the belief in black magic and spells. Yet the more Claire learns, the more that strange events begin to occur. When Myra departs on a book launch tour, she leaves Claire in charge of the mansion, giving Claire the chance to explore the house and its collection of strange objects, books and other items that had been left by Myra's now-deceased uncle, Alfred. Alone in the mansion, Claire begins to experience a strong sense of deja-vu, particularly about the painting of Alice Ramsay, an ancestor of Alfred's who was found guilty of witchcraft. Gradually, Claire is consumed by a series of hallucinations in which she begins to see Alice's life and the tragedy that marks its end. Yet for Claire, a more immediate danger is her enemy, Josie Sloan, a fellow student who seems to have real powers of magic that she threatens to use on Claire. What is the link between Alice and Claire, and how can Claire protect herself from Josie at Willowmere?

     The Witches of Willowmere is the first volume in what promises to be a fine new fantasy series for young adults. Baird skillfully weaves elements of the supernatural into a story whose setting and characters are contemporary with many of her readers. The limited presence of adults gives the characters, particularly the protagonist, the opportunity to determine their own path towards adulthood, a feature that will resonate with teens. Baird uses history, description, imagery and voice to effectively create a solid base from which to further develop and explore story lines based on the theme of good versus evil. The subject of witchcraft, itself, is likely to draw the attention of many readers, and as a stand-alone work or a hook to a future series, The Witches of
is recommended for high school and public libraries because of its high interest value.


Tom Knutson is a librarian with Saskatoon Public Library in Saskatoon, SK.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364