Author: Graham Joyce, 2005.
Genre: Period Fiction. 1960s. Coming-of-Age. Witchcraft. Folklore.
Other Details: Hardback. 256 pages.
The novel is set in rural Leicestershire in the early 1960s, its narrator is Fern Cullen, a young woman adopted as a baby by Mammy Cullen, an elderly wise woman. Mammy serves as a midwife to the local community and also dispenses herbal medicine and the occasional spell. On occasion she assists local women to rid themselves of an unwanted pregnancy, well aware that if she doesn't they'll find someone else who will use cruder methods than an herbal preparation. Fern is her apprentice though is unsure if she really believes in the unseen forces that Mammy speaks of. Fern thinks more about the exciting things happening in the wider world such as the escalating space race and the hippies who have moved into the farm next door. Although she has assisted Mammy for some years, if Fern wishes to be a midwife she must attend an NHS approved course. In these changing times the medical establishment is seeking to disenfranchise such women as Mammy and their traditional practices in favour of modern medicine. Of course, abortion remains illegal and anyone caught assisting a woman to terminate a pregnancy faces imprisonment.
When a girl in the village who had been helped by Mammy dies, she is immediately blamed and despite her advanced age she is attacked by some men when she next goes into town. The local doctor insists that Mammy be moved to a hospital in Leicester where her condition slowly worsens. Meanwhile, Fern struggles to cope without her. Their landlord is seeking to expel them from their cottage and she also has to make an important decision as whether she'll undertake an ancient ritual of dedication to the Old Ways.
This was my first experience of Graham Joyce's work though I had read positive things about him. In his opening acknowledgements he thanks a woman I know who is a local expert on this kind of traditional witchcraft and folk practices. This gave me confidence that he was going to approach the subject with sensitivity rather than sensationalism. The village of Hallaton where the novel is set does exist and as in the novel holds the annual Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking at Easter.
I found it a powerful work, very grounded in the period and weaving a compelling coming-of-age tale of a young woman who is not quite sure what world she belongs to. I was carried along by her voice and eager to know how things would resolve. I also had a personal interest in the subject matter as I live in the same part of the country as Fern and know from experience that the Old Ways portrayed in the novel were still a quiet part of rural life hereabouts as late as the early 1990s.