Book review: “The Wee Free Men” by Terry Pratchett Previous item Poem: "Holy Spirit" Next item Book review: “Eight...

Book review: “The Wee Free Men” by Terry Pratchett

I don’t get it.  I mean, I don’t understand why anyone would divide Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels into those for adults (35) and those for young adults (6).

It’s not like he reverted to words of single syllables or to Mother Goose ideas when he was writing a book that publishers sold as a YA novel.  In fact, he would get pretty dark, maybe especially dark, in such books.

Five of those six YA novels feature a born witch named Tiffany Aching who’s all of nine when, in The Wee Free Men (2003), she’s called upon to save her world from living nightmares and other bona fide monsters seeking to invade from really terrible place called Fantasyland.  The others are:

I’m partial of the Tiffany Aching books because they’re very good, as good as any “adult” Discworld book, and a couple have been particularly important for me.

My review of I Shall Wear Midnight was the first entry in this Pump Don’t Work blog on July 23, 2011, the first of posts that now number over 1,000.  And, then, on September 18, 2015, I reviewed the last of Pratchett’s books The Shepherd’s Crown, published posthumously, following his death from early onset Alzheimer’s disease the previous March.

“An inconvenience”

According to a note from an editorial assistant in The Shepherd’s Crown, Pratchett wrote the book near the end of his life when he was dealing with increasing disability. He knew what was to come, but, in the novel, he didn’t pull any punches for his readers or for himself.

A key scene takes place when Granny Weatherwax lays down on her bed and waits:

ESMERELDA WEATHERWAX, YOU KNOW WHO COMES, AND MAY I SAY IT’S A PRIVILEGE TO DEAL WITH YOU.

“I know it is you, Mr. Death….”

ESMERELDA WEATHERWAX, WE HAVE MET SO MANY TIMES BEFORE, HAVEN’T WE?

“Too many to count, Mr. Reaper. Well, you’ve finally got me, you old bugger. I’ve had my season, no doubt about it, and I was never one for pushing myself forward, or complaining…”

YOU ARE TAKING THIS VERY WELL, ESME WEATHERWAX.

“It’s an inconvenience, true enough, and I don’t like it at all, but I know that you do it for everyone…”

That’s a key scene in the novel, but it’s also a key scene in all of Pratchett’s books.  Death — the fact and the personification as a skeleton with a scythe — was one of his core themes.  In fact, that CAPITAL LETTER-TALKING guy, who acts very human despite his apparent lack of emotions, shows up in all but two of the Discworld novels.

So it’s not surprising that, in his last book, Pratchett was looking Death — his own — in the face as he described Granny dying.  If Granny doesn’t whine and wail, if she meets the Reaper with equanimity and perhaps a bit of annoyance at the “inconvenience,” perhaps that’s how Pratchett was approaching his own end.  Or wanting to approach is own end.

“Poison goes”

This existential discussion about death with Death, remember, is occurring in a novel that publishers identify as a young adult book.  In other words, for those sorts of readers who aren’t mature enough for the grown-up books.

Similarly, I Shall Wear Midnight isn’t butterflies and teacups.  In fact, it’s one of Pratchett’s darker novels. In its opening pages, a 13-year-old pregnant girl is beaten so badly by her father than she loses her baby.

And Tiffany, who by now is 16, is being pursued by the Cunning Man, an eyeless, body-less evil presence who is the impetus to witch-burning (of all sorts) throughout history. 

“Poison goes where poison’s welcome.” That’s the book’s mantra, the explanation about how the Cunning Man’s evil makes its way into the world — through people who are open to it, who welcome it.

Not butterflies and teacups.

“Smelled a bit”

One of the two Discworld novels in which Death, the guy, fails to appear is the 2011 book Snuff which is about tobacco but also brings to mind the use of the word as slang for killing.  There are dark elements as well in the other Death-less book, The Wee Free Men.

Tiffany, who knows in her bones that she’s a witch, is talking with Miss Tick, whom she suspects (correctly) is a fully trained witch, about old Mrs. Snapperly.

Old Mrs. Snapperly lived alone in a cottage, and everyone thought she was a witch.

“She died in the snow last winter,” said Tiffany slowly.

“And now tell me what you’re not telling me,” said Miss Tick, sharp as a knife.

“Er…she was begging, people think, but no one opened their doors to her, and, er…it was a cold night, and…she died….Everyone said she was a witch….”

“You don’t think so?”

Well, Tiffany explains, the Baron’s 12-year-old son Roland went riding in the woods last summer and never came back — the woods where Mrs. Snapperly lived— and people, well, thought she killed him by cooking him in her oven.

Mrs. Snapperly had no teeth, talked to herself and had a cat and a squint, and, after Roland disappeared, people harassed her, even to the extent of burning her books.

“I think she was just a sick old lady who was no use to anyone and smelled a bit and looked odd because she had no teeth,” said Tiffany.  “She just looked like a witch in a story.”

“Them as can’t”

Tiffany is sure that, if her Granny Aching had been alive, Mrs. Snapperly wouldn’t have died. She’d have spoken up, and people would have listened.  After all, everyone listened to Granny who, even if no one said it out loud, was a witch with power. 

Tiffany remembers Granny stepping in to convince a man beating his donkey to stop.  He learned his lesson.  And, afterwards, she said to her granddaughter:

“Them as can do has to do for them as can’t.  And someone has to speak for them as has no voices.”

That is the job of witches.  Even more, it’s the job of human beings.

The Wee Free Men isn’t a book about butterflies and teacups.

Patrick T. Reardon

4.28.22

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