Fairy tales have always been some of the most deeply influential stories in the world. They delve into the mysteries of great courage and terror, of purest love and hatred, planting the belief in magic that carries us through our childhoods. The Witch’s Boy by Michael Gruber marvelously explores the themes of these essential stories and fleshes them out in his retelling of Rumplestiltskin.
One day, a witch finds a surprising creature abandoned in the woods, with yellow eyes and a piggish snout. It is a baby, the ugliest little boy she has ever seen. Naturally, she takes him in and raises him as her son. Lump grows up in an enchanted nursery with the company of his witch mother, her cat familiar, a bear nurse, and an enslaved djinn. He knows no other friends but the creatures of the woods around his home, and children magically glimpsed at from afar. The witch does not prove to be a very wise mother, torn away by her duties so that she leaves her child in the care of others who cannot teach him how to be a man. When Lump dares to make contact with the outside world, all his beautiful illusions are shattered. The bitterness that creeps into Lump’s heart leads to the sacrifice and the destruction of his mother’s powers. His whole adopted family is forced into the strange, cruel world of human beings. Lump’s life becomes a journey to growth and self discovery, and he must bear it all when brought into contact with other fairy tale figures, each spun in an interesting, original way.
Grueber’s voice is faithful to the spirit of the fairy tale world, and is a delight for readers grades 6-9. There is certainly something to be gleaned from it by older readers, the magical and mundane world building is solid and believable. The characters are colorful and sympathetic from powerful Mrs. Forest the witch mother, her sassy cat Falance, to the weapons teacher Captain Johannes and arms dealer sister Gretl. Bagorax the djinn comes from a different literary tradition, and his speech reflects that with flowery language and sensuous imagery. Lump’s character development into being unsympathetically cold feels like an honest portrayal of what could happen to a sheltered child when disillusioned and betrayed. His emotional and psychological pain comes from an underdeveloped understanding of the world, which he is forced to learn. It is a strong tale with depth in its plot and theme, following Lump’s coming of age. The happy fairy tale ending feels oddly out of place for me, but is a pleasant conclusion to the work.