Once there was a witch who lived at the edge of this slough. (The picture above is how the area looks now.)
I knew her…
I knew her heart…
In Spring, Summer and Fall her weathered, old shack was hidden. In Winter, it was a stark reminder just at the edge of town.
I don’t remember her name. I’m not sure I ever knew her name. I don’t remember what I called her, but I must have called her something. I use to spend time in her house. I slept there on occasion. I never called her a witch – that was my older middle sister’s name for her.
Her house was small and weathered. There was only one small window that faced into the woods. There was a dirt floor. There was a curtained off bed where we would sleep. There was a hearth, for heat and cooking.
Her house was a place of quiet and warmness. It was a cozy little cave.
She was eastern European. My grandparents (my mother’s parents) knew her. I suspect she was a childless widow. She lived alone at the very edge of a small town. Small as in everyone knows you; who you were and who you belonged to. Small as in 4 streets across and 5 streets down.
The town ended. The slough began. On the other sides of the slough there were farms. One of these farms use to belong to my grandparents. But this was after – after my grandparents built in town. I was seven. I was small & quiet & well behaved.
We would spend part of the summer with my grandparents; my two older sisters, my younger brother and me. Two of us were handfuls. My grandparents were old. Their friends were old. My mother stayed home to work and build up provisions for when school would start.
The old lady, the witch, would get lonely. She would need help. I would get sent to spend the night. I was quiet. I was well behaved.
We would gather weeds from the woods. We would make soup using vegetables my grandmother had sent along with me. We would bake cookies. She would talk. I would listen. We would go to bed when the sun went down and I would go home to my grandparents after breakfast was cleaned up.
I never called her witch. She was mine. She was my friend. I knew her heart and she knew mine. The quiet, scared child I was found refuge there.
I met a lot of strong older women through my grandmother.
There was Mama H. She was Darren’s grandmother (LOL. Bewitched.) Darren was the first boy who kissed me. I was thirteen. My grandmother knew of the kiss before I got back to her house, which was three houses down from Mama H. There was a Papa H as well but he died before she did. I could go have tea at her house all by myself.
There was Tanta Emma. She was my mother’s aunt, my grandmother’s sister-in-law and thus my great-aunt. It was at her house that I learnt how to make Honigplatzchen (Honey cookies). She had thirteen children; ten boys and three girls. Her youngest boys were only about ten years older than my eldest sister. My grandmother had two children, a boy and a girl born ten years apart.
There were other assorted older crones who lived alone and enjoyed it. Their husbands and children were gone. They survived in spite of the gossip and the labels.
These strong women, these crones, these witches are my role models. I wish I could go back and spend a century or so listening to them talk. Why are we so old so soon? Why are we so soon gone and so late smart?
Sitting at the top of my To Be Read pile is Green Witch. It is the sequel to Green Angel, a book I adore. I have renewed this book twice. It is a small book that will take me only around three hours to read. It has sat in my TBR pile so long because I am fearful that it won’t be as good as Green Angel. I would rather forever anticipate new books then be disappointed in them.
However, in anticipation of the season, tomorrow I will sit down and finally read Green Witch and recall, with fondness, all the old crones I have known and loved.
At the beginning of August, I wrote a review of Alice Hoffman’s book The Story Sisters and mentioned how much I also loved her book Green Angel. So, I decided to give you that review today. It’s a bit long. I was very verbose when I wrote the review, just after I read the book.
There may be spoilers within.
What is a Fairy Tale? What must a story involve to be considered such? Is it enough that it has heroes vs villains, witches or evil stepmothers, magic, spells, charms, or prophetic dreams? Is every story involving quests, treasure, and family a Fairy Tale? Is every story where a problem is solved and good people live happily ever after a Fairy Tale? It used to be that a Fairy Tale was any story that started out “Once Upon A Time” and ended “Happily Ever After.” Fairy Tales have been for a very long time the province of children. Within the last twenty years or so, Fairy Tales have begun to represent any tale set in the mystical land of Fairie where even if magic does not happen there are elements within the story that are unreal or other-worldly.
If Green Angel is a Fairy Tale it is a feminist rending of one. The story focuses around Green, our heroine, who through her own fortitude, courage and resilience overcomes numerous obstacles to complete her quest. There is a smidgen of science, a hint of magic, too much hope to be a dystopia. However, does the story have enough magic in it so that we can feel comfortable calling it a Fairy Tale?
We could argue also that Green Angel is Magic Realist fiction. It is, after all, a story set within an everyday mundane world with the aura of the fantastic surrounding it. Because one cannot, after all, tattoo themselves so completely even if one were an ambidextrous contortionist. And can science explain how the body’s chemistry can turn black ink to green?
Then there are the dystopian elements that are so hard to ignore. Is the condition of Green’s life so extremely bad that there is no hope?
We bandy about these fictional terms like a talisman against the ancient gods who have forgotten us. If we can name something we can control it and thus have no reason to fear it.
If I told you only that I loved this book, that the language was perfect, that I wanted to rush right out and buy a copy for all my sisters (I have five), would you rush right out and buy a copy as well you should. If I told you only that I kept renewing the library copy so that I could still have it in my bag, on my person, until I can afford to buy my own copy of this exquisite little volume, would you understand.
Alice Hoffman wrote Green Angel. Matt Mahurin illustrates the Scholastic edition, designed by Elizabeth B. Parisi. Green pages run throughout the delicious illustrations and the book fits comfortably in the hand.
Green Angel is divided into five stories. They are Heart, Soul, Treasure, Rain and Sister. The themes are reminiscent of Cinder-Ella and Sleeping Beauty. Is this a Fairy Tale after all?
The tale told in Heart is the reality of what happened and how it happened. The tale told in Soul is what Green dreams. The tale told in Treasure tells us who and what Green loved. The tale told in Rain is what Green has lost. The tale told in Sister details the story that Green is finally able to tell.
A story involving a quest and love, with a smidgen of science, a hint of magic, and too much hope to be a dystopia.
Green and her younger sister Aurora live an ideal life above a village at the edge of a forest. Their father is honest and strong. Their mother prefers Blue Jay feathers to pearls. Aurora is wild and beautiful and can disappear like moonlight. Green is the least of them, a weed among the flowers. She is looking forward to turning sixteen. She keeps her distance from the village, is happy to be her family’s shadow. She is comfortable in the shadows, patient enough to sit for hours and watch the garden grow, see it turning green. Her family treasures her, Green says, because of her ability to grow substance from nothing … to create a garden that nourishes them all.
When catastrophe happens, Green is left alone to pick up the pieces of her life. The end of the world comes and Green survives to exist in the ashes. She must protect herself from the sooty days and parentless looters who come in the night not knowing she survived. The looters destroy the garden leaving nothing but ashes and stones. Stones that Green collects to build funeral cairns for her family. Half-blind, this task becomes her purpose, as she wishes to not feel anything. She becomes a half-dead thing in a half-dead world.
Green creates armor for herself out of her father’s old black boots and battered leather jacket. She carries stones and a slingshot everywhere. She tears the thorns from her garden’s bare rosebushes and sews them onto her clothes. She takes a needle and inks onto herself a raven, a bat, and a rose. She writes upon herself with black ink.
She loses herself in sleep and dreaming. She dreams her sister back into being, so Green herself can become, once again, patient, still waiting to be sixteen, still hopeful. Green sleepwalks through her days and each night inks tattoos upon her skin. This gives her courage to venture into the village. They thought her dead, they call her cursed. Green changes her name to Ash.
Slowly, Ash becomes friends with a neighbor, rescues a ghost white dog, feeds the birds, feeds and clothes an old nemesis, befriends a boy, dreams that her sister does not know her.
Slowly Ash changes. She trusts. She loves. Her tattoos start to change color from black to green. She replants her garden. She learns that to heal one must learn to let go.
Ash becomes Green once again. She dreams of a sister who knows her. Green cries and her tears wash the ash embers out of her eyes.
By the end of her quest Green is able to see clearly. She can see the world outside, aching and ruined, but beautiful all the same. She can miss her family, she can watch her revitalized garden grow, and she can discard her armor. Green can start to live happily ever after.
Green Angel by Alice Hoffman
New York: Scholastic, 2003