This is a book that is very worthwhile despite being somewhat hard to track down (although, as it were, not as hard as the sequel/prequel, Juniper).
Wise Child is a great example of the value of a well-funded school district. I cannot begin to count the number of books that I was recommended by my middle school librarian (hi Ms. Miller!), who would patiently roam the aisles with me after school while I was waiting to be picked up. This is one of them, though, and I often think about various elements even if I don’t re-read it as often as I like–it’s not available in ebook format, and my only copy is at my parents’ house. It’s not out of print but it’s not mass printed anymore, so it’s not as simple as grabbing a couple extra copies either.
In a nutshell, the titular Wise Child is left a de facto orphan after her grandmother dies. Despite living in a small, nondescript Gaelic-ish Cornish-ish? village, she’s actually the daughter of a beautiful wealthy lady who abandoned her and a fancy adventurer off on a Grand Voyage somewhere. No one very much likes her (she’s spoiled and weird looking) and no one has the resources to take her in. Enter Juniper, the village herbalist/midwife/[witch] who no one particularly trusts but also who manages to heal all ailments with her gentle, plant-based ways. Under the care of Juniper, Wise Child can and does blossom…but whether she’ll be able to stay in her happy life remains to be seen.
This book is an exercise in contrasts. Most of the book is about nothing much at all (large portions are just Wise Child complaining about farm chores) but about witchcraft and tensions between early Christians and pre-Christian religions. It feels so grounded in our reality and also features broomflight. You feel safe and secure in a cozy cottage and then unmoored and tense in a poverty- and disease-stricken village. You feel like alongside Wise Child you’re understanding the world and yet there’s a whole unspoken backstory behind Juniper and where she comes from. Juniper is definitely a witch (or a doran) but most of what she does is listen to people, comfort them, and give them something for infection and pain.
This is a beautiful work with time-appropriate feminism, celebrating the joys of honest work to make a cozy home and hearth. As we learn both here and in her work, Juniper was once the princess of Cornwall but never in line for the throne due to her gender. One might argue that she’s fallen far, to be the quiet healer for a town that barely tolerates her presence. But again and again she demonstrates enormous strength and a beautiful reserve–she never seems limited. She’s worldly, educated, patient and in possession of great power, and has chosen to live a wholesome, contented life filled with frankly delicious sounding food–descriptions of crusty bread, fresh foamy milk, salty cheese, hearty stew will make you hungry for the sort of nourishing food that you make yourself and enjoy after a solid day’s work.