Ever since Ms. Murphy told us about the witch trials that happened centuries ago right here in Juniper, I can’t stop thinking about them. Those people weren’t magic. They were like me. Different like me.
I’m autistic. I see things that others do not. I hear sounds that they can ignore. And sometimes I feel things all at once. I think about the witches, with no one to speak for them. Not everyone in our small town understands. But if I keep trying, maybe someone will. I won’t let the witches be forgotten. Because there is more to their story. Just like there is more to mine.
Other people’s minds are small.
Your mind is enormous. You don’t want to be like other people.
My daughter was recently tested for autism – a complex test for a complex condition which reduces all that complexity into a range of scores. Language. Reciprocal Interactions. She scored 18/28 and the marker for autism is 10, whilst the spectrum begins at 7; and she scored 10 / 10 comparatively, which apparently is the highest level of impairment.
It was not a surprise, to be honest, but rather… sobering… to see it reduced to numbers and in black-and-white.
But the upshot was that I asked around for Middle School books, featuring neuro-divergent representation. And this was one of the books suggested.
With that rather lengthy preamble, what the book delivered was a wholly convincing narrative voice of an autistic neuro-divergent girl, Addie, facing a range of difficulties. The loss of her old – and possibly only – friend; a bullying classmate; and new teacher who does not understand her, nor how to support her. And these are all things that my daughter has struggled with, too. Addie’s life, however, is not wholly difficult: her family, especially her older – and also Autistic – sister Keedie is wonderfully supportive; her parents and the school librarian, Mr Allison, are also unquestioningly supportive.
During the course of the novel, Addie learns of her town’s history in the persecution and execution of witches and she becomes fascinated and McNicoll describes the emotion of her excitement in beautifully physical – and authentic – ways:
I stare at Ms. Murphy and feel all the air in the room disappear… every nerve on my body alive and impatient to know…My hands are wringing. She isn’t explaining quickly enough for my wired mind…
And further, as she hears about the trials and the executions
I feel…angry. The unfairness of it sits in my stomach like a stone. I imagine women being frightened and alone as they are thrown into the cold water. The harsh splash, the possibility of floating and facing even more pain… My hands are tremoring and begging to be used…
This kicks off the novel’s plot: Addie becomes fixated on the history of the witch trials and becomes determined to have her village erect a memorial to the persecuted women’s memory. She begins a campaign and creates flyers, gathers donations and seeks to persuade the village council to agree despite their reticence.
The parallels between the witches, tried and executed for being different, and autistic girls, bullied and outcast for being different, was perhaps a little obvious – but then this is a middle grade novel! And the parallel is also very apt and wholly appropriate and probably true. Many of the features of autism probably would trigger allegations of witchcraft.
What I really appreciated was the use of the language of autism in this novel – and obviously I have a particular interest at the moment. We learn the difference between being autistic – an adjective describing your mind and brain – and having autism -a disease. We learn the vocabulary of stimming and masking and meltdown and shutdown, and these are going to be incredibly useful for my daughter having a narrative and vocabulary for her own condition. We learn that, contrary to the usual assumption that autistic children have limited empathy, some have too much empathy.
But, even without that specific perspective, I found that McNicoll’s characters rather than her motives carried the novel. I loved Addie! I loved her family. I loved Nina – Addie’s older sister and Kaddie’s neurotypical twin – who despite being distant and absorbed by her vlogging, is unequivocally on Addie’s side. I loved Audrey, the new girl in Addie’s school. who befriends her.
What I didn’t like – and I disliked it enough to knock a star off its rating – was the presentation of the teacher, Ms Murphy. Whilst efforts were made to explain her behaviour – she is “from a different generation. And the poor woman must be run ragged with her mother being so ill and her husband gone” and has a class size of apparently thirty-four – she is monstrous. I cannot conceive that a single teacher would so consistently belittle and humiliate and bully a vulnerable girl. Looking at the litany of her behaviour, she screws up Addie’s work in front of the class, she accuses her of lying, she does not challenge the language of other children who equate Addie’s difference with being a witch… and she personalises her attacks on Addie, saying
“You are a vile girl.”
Ms. Murphy’s voice is quiet and deadly. I look up. She is glaring down at me, no longer trying to hide her face. I see it all. All the colors of her hate.
“Attacking Emily like an animal. I knew you were lazy and badly behaved, but even I could never have…”
Emily, the student who bullies Addie, is more convincing – and again McNicoll gives her enough depth of character to make her credible. But for an adult to act like this – a teacher – a teacher in the modern world with such an improved (improving?) understanding of autistic children…? I balked at that.
In short, however, I both loved this book in its own right, and will value it as a novel to share with my daughter to teach her how to talk about and understand her own condition. It did move me in a deep and powerful way – and raised a bit of a lump in my throat and prickle behind the eyes.
And it seems apt to be reviewing it on Fathers’ Day in the UK and I shall round it off on a personal note: this was the card my daughter made for me today:
I love you as I love dragons… high praise!
What I Liked
- Addie! A totally convincing and authentic neurodivergent character.
- Representation of autistic girls
- The language and vocabulary of autism used naturally and powerfully.
- The parallels between autism and the persecution of witches in the past.
What Could Have Been Different
- The depiction of the teacher Ms Murphy which was too extreme, too vile.