Although Wise Child has been around for a long time, and I know several people who count it as a really important book for them, I actually had never read it before. I thought I should probably do something about that.
So, I can see, having read it, why people like it. It’s a quiet book in some ways–no saving the world, or anything as grand as that. It has interesting characters, and a nice feeling of place and time. There are some passages that are really lovely, as well.
Wise Child takes place in medieval Scotland, with Wise Child being the nickname of the narrator and main character. We never get another name for her, and I was curious about that. After her grandmother’s death, she is taken in by Juniper, a cailleach (“it meant a single woman, but more than a single woman, one who had something uncanny about her”). Wise Child is brought up by Juniper and trained to be a healer and a doran, while the people in the village view them with suspicion.
I loved the descriptions of Juniper’s house, which in some ways were my favorite part of the book. Here’s a bit from when Wise Child first arrives: “On the other side of the room was a huge table set on a flagged floor. There were shelves around it that held cooking pots and earthenware jars and vats…There was a big sideboard with earthenware pitchers and plates on it, and a huge pestle and mortar. From the ceiling hung bunches of plats, some of them wrapped in muslin. Afterward, I was to discover that if you went through a door behind the table, you came out into a cool dairy that ran along the back of the house. It too had a flagged floor, white walls, and marble tables with tubs and churns and jugs and strainers, and newly scalded cloths hung up to dry. In one corner was a quern in which I would laboriously grind our meal.”
Doesn’t that just make you want to move there? I love settings that feel real like that.
I enjoyed all of that–the everyday homey bits, the bits about gathering herbs and healing. I liked the characters a lot too, though I did feel that Juniper was almost impossibly enlightened. But I was less wild about the way the tension between Juniper’s way of life and Christianity was resolved. Spoilers follow.
So for much of the book, I wasn’t too bothered by this. I thought that having Fillan be the main antagonist was predictable and the whole portrayal of Christianity a bit stereotypical. But hey, I can live with that. And I liked that Furlong addressed Wise Child’s desire to both live as a doran and be a Christian. In fact, at one point I was quite happy with that. There seemed to be a fair bit of nuance. And then Juniper was arrested and it seemed like all the nuance disappeared and Christianity was just Repressive and Wrong. I don’t know–if anyone has thoughts on the subject, I would love to hear them!
In the end, my impression is of a book that I liked in many ways, but which I couldn’t really agree with. I may still read Juniper–it’s on my list. But I won’t necessarily be rushing out to read it right now.
Book source: public library
Book information: Random House Children’s, 1987; middle grade fantasy