One lovely spring morning, a witch ventures out to collect her daily herbs. Much to her surprise, she finds a baby in a basket outside her door. But this is no ordinary baby; it is the ugliest child anyone has ever seen, and tied to its basket is a note: "the devil's child for the devil's wife." The witch is taken aback: "Witches are supposed to eat babies, not feed them," she says. But she surprises herself by feeling an odd fondness for the ugly child, who she names Lump, and she assembles a sort of family to help her care for the boy: a she-bear, a malevolent demon, and her familiar, a cat named Falance.
As Lump grows, he struggles to find his own magical powers and his relationship to the other humans nearby. In the meantime, his foster mother has the same problems as working mothers everywhere: how to balance her time between tending the Midsummer fires and caring for her child. The witch, who is more powerful than Lump understands, is mystified by motherhood. She thinks, "I have always known what to do; I see the Pattern clear as my own hand, and I follow it and am content. But there is no guide here, and every path I can see leads to some pain. Perhaps this is part of having a child; the Pattern is of no use, and there is this aching in my heart."
Soon enough, disaster strikes, and Lump, the witch, and Falance hit the road. Robbed of her powers when she makes the ultimate sacrifice for her child, the witch must find a new life for herself: "It is the case that I cannot be both a mother and a witch, or not the sort of witch I was." In the meantime, Lump grows more distant, demanding, and hard to love. Fashioning themselves as The Faeryland Outcasts, the three perform magic and meet dozens of characters who will be vaguely familiar to readers from other fairy tales.
THE WITCH'S BOY, though, is far more than a fractured fairy tale. Although many of the characters, settings, and situations are borrowed from folklore, the complexities of plot and theme go far beyond simple fairy stories. The conflicted relationship between mother and son, the psychological pain inflicted on the boy Lump, the ways all the characters must step out of themselves to find friendship and love, the unexpected places where magic is found --- all these elements elevate THE WITCH'S BOY from a simple fairy story to a haunting, fully developed tale of magic, mystery, growth, and love.
--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl