The old house is perfect. Ellen March falls in love on first sight with the pre-Revolution farmhouse, sitting in a clearing surrounded by lilacs, apple trees, dogwoods, oaks, and maples. It doesn’t matter to her that the locals say the house comes with the ghost of a witch, or that the rural Virginia setting is miles from anywhere, the nearest town the isolated community of Chew’s Corners. The house has what she wants: solitude. With her daughter and the three nephews she had helped raise all nearly fledged, it’s time she took care of herself for a change. Her only near neighbour, Norman McKay, is a handsome, wealthy bachelor. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for starters, there’s Norman’s sullen nephew Tim, the town’s despised delinquent. When Ellen comes to his defence in an incident with the town’s teens, it doesn’t endear her with their parents, and while he awakens a maternal response in her, she’s not happy when her daughter Penny falls for him.
And then there’s a string of events, possibly coincidences, that provoke gossip that Ellen herself is a witch. With the town dominated by a fire and brimstone sect—The Earthly Church of the Wrath of God, no sentimental schlock about love preached there—she makes enemies when she speaks up against intolerance and superstition. The townfolks reactions are discomforting but not frightening, at least, not at first. Ellen proves she is quite capable of taking care of herself when she can deal with them one-on-one.
She just never expects to be trapped in her own house, along with Penny and Tim, by an armed mob…
Witch, by Barbara Michaels, is an old favourite. It was published in the 1970s, and I loved it when I first read it, probably in the early 1980s. I re-read it again recently, and still enjoyed it. Younger readers will probably consider it dated, but I don’t care. A cell phone would have saved Ellen a lot of grief, and her occupation for the last ten years was housekeeper for her widowed brother-in-law and his three boys. She doesn’t look for a job, but the book never explains how she can afford to buy and refurbish the old house.
Despite the book’s age, Ellen is a strong female character—strong in the sense of acting on her own, rather than being passively buffeted through life. She is misled and manipulated for a while, but once she realizes her error, she doesn’t dither around.
The publisher’s blurb gives the impression that this is a ghost story, but that’s misleading. The supernatural element is minimal; this story is more in the vein of Mary Stewart’s suspense thrillers than Micheal’s other supernatural thrillers like Ammie, Come Home or The Crying Child. This story is about mass hysteria, driven by a culture clash between a sophisticated ex-urbanite and an isolated rural community, and manipulated by a man who has much to lose when busybody Ellen sticks her nose in. There’s romance here, too, based on something much more important than mere sexual attraction, and a functional extended family. (They actually like and help each other! How shocking!)
Audience: Adults and teens. No sex or bad language. Some violence and psychological abuse.