Lump, the title character in Michael Gruber’s remarkably original teen novel, The Witch’s Boy, is aptly named: he has a nose like a pig, yellow eyes, pointed ears and a lumpy body covered with coarse black hair. Abandoned as a baby in the woods, he is found by the Woman of the Forest, a mysterious witch feared by the country folk. She is not the kind of witch who inhabits fairy tales, but is more akin to something out of Celtic myth, a creature as much elemental as human, who lives in a cottage deep in the woods, along with a talking cat and a conniving genie.
The Witch’s Boy could be considered a handbook on how not to raise your children. Even witches have their duties, and “Mrs. Forest” has some big ones related to the seasons, the phases of the moon and the health and welfare of the land around her. But as many a busy parent has come to discover, neglecting your children can lead to trouble. The actual rearing of Lump is left to a bear that loves him tenderly, but the boy isn’t equipped to keep up with the rest of his nanny’s kind. When the witch then leaves the education of young Lump to her captive genie, he uses his naâ€¢ve young charge as a means of obtaining his freedom. Finally, the witch must face the most fearful consequence of raising a child watching him grow up. In Lump’s case, this means finding out that he’s not the beautiful boy he was led to believe.
Gruber has created a fairy tale turned on its ear; he re-imagines the stories we grew up with, cast in a landscape as real as our pre-history, but just as mysterious. There’s an obsessive-compulsive girl named Eyella, who’s convinced that a prince is in love with her; a former circus performer named Pinocchio; and a swordsman and his sister named Hansel and Gretel. Many more familiar names populate this incredible book, and most surprising of all is the name Lump is known by today.
Gruber, the author of two acclaimed adult thrillers (Valley of Bones, Tropic of Night), should find a receptive teen audience with this engrossing fantasy debut. James Neal Webb has two lovely portraits of his now grown children hanging in his library.