Monday, March 28, 2011

Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg

Elizabeth, an only child, has moved to town and not been a great success at making friends. One day she almost literally runs into a mysterious girl (Jennifer) in the woods between her apartment building and school, and Jennifer eventually adopts Elizabeth as her apprentice witch. We are told in the scene where they meet that Jennifer is black, but it doesn't matter at all to the plot. Given the copyright date, I have to wonder if this was an effort at equal opportunity book characters?

The girls meet at the library every Saturday at 10, to read up on witchcraft. They have a Magic Circle nearby where they go to perform ceremonies. Elizabeth is given a new task every week. Some examples: eating a raw egg every day, eating a raw onion every day, eating a raw hot dog every day. And some things are forbidden: making phone calls, cutting her hair. Someday she will be a Master Witch like Jennifer. All through the school year they work on a flying ointment - borrowing some ingredients from other witches' recipes, and adding some of their own (example: snow they walked on barefoot, saved in the freezer). One "ingredient" is a toad, who they take care of for several weeks before the day they're to make the ointment. He is named Hilary Ezra. Elizabeth goes along with almost everything Jennifer proposes, and when there's a disagreement, Jennifer almost always wins. But when Jennifer is about to drop Hilary Ezra into the cauldron of boiling oil for the ointment, Elizabeth (finally!) can't take it anymore and prevents it. Hilary Ezra hops away and the girls have a big fight.

In the end they are good friends, and don't need to pretend to be witches to have fun together. They also invite other neighborhood girls to play once in a while.

I read this in 5th grade and remember liking it, although I will say that the only thing I really remembered prior to picking it up again was a remark about not liking to wear a winter coat in April, because it's all dirty and a little too warm, but it's not warm enough out for your spring coat and it's not worth washing the winter one because it'll get washed soon for storage. It struck a note for me, apparently!

Reading this now, I can't believe how awful Jennifer was to Elizabeth, and how much Elizabeth puts up with. I have no idea why she'd do it! The week Elizabeth has to eat a raw egg every day, she is also assigned to bring Jennifer a hard boiled one. And when Elizabeth gives up candy during Christmas break, Jennifer gives up watermelon. Elizabeth's raw onion week corresponds to Jennifer's raw celery week. You get the idea.

I was also surprised at the level of detail in this book about witchcraft. It's only at the very end of the book that their witch activities are identified as a game of any kind. Witches are always fascinating, I realize - but here they aren't presented as magical the way we see in Harry Potter - you could almost use this book as a guide to getting started, if you were an enterprising kid. I'm kind of surprised it gets as much classroom time as it does as a result, but apparently there aren't many ill effects!

With emphasis on the pretend aspect, and how friends should treat each other, it's not a bad book to recommend to the right kind of kid. I think it could be especially good for lonely kids - there's a lot of discussion on what it's like not to be good at making friends, and how that feels at a birthday party, that kind of thing. Probably why I liked it so much as a kid!

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