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Book review: “Witches Abroad” by Terry Pratchett

In Terry Pratchett’s 1991 Discworld novel Witches Abroad,  Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick have an adventure in “foreign places,” in particular, Genua, a New Orleans-ish place that a witch named Lilith with a fondness for mirrors wants to change into a kind of Disneyland on steroids.

You can tell while reading this that Pratchett had recently gone to New Orleans and fallen in love with the tastily weird food of that one-of-a-kind city.

You can also tell that he had a bee in his bonnet about the sickly saccharine fairy tale stories that the Walt Disney studios specialized in — the sort in which everything happens just so, the bad queen/witch/mother gets her due, and the heroine and her savior (a girl, after all, needs a savior) live happily ever after.

Or else

Lilith is trying to inflict stories on Genua in the same way that Vladimir Lenin, Joe Stalin and their crew inflicted totalitarianism on Russia and its satellites.   You will be happy — or else!

There’s also a swamp woman named Mrs. Gogol and a zombie named Saturday who are trying to inflict their own idea of a story on Genua.

And there’s a young girl named Ella who is being groomed by Lilith, as her fairy godmother, to function as the center of her fairy tale world.  To that end, Ella cleans out this kitchen over and over again, thus earning the nickname, Emberella — which leads Magrat, the girl’s other fairy godmother, to ponder:

Emberella, thought Magrat.  I’m fairy godmothering a girl who sounds like something you put up in the rain.

Nothing sacred for Pratchett

In other words, nothing from the world of such stories is sacred for Pratchett who seems to be lashing out in Witches Abroad at the many ways in which people are misled by thinking they have to try to find a fairy-tale happiness even though that can’t ever be real, even if powerful witches or theme-ride builders tell them it can.

At one point, a peeved Magrat tells Granny, “There’s nothing wrong with happy endings.”

But Granny’s not having any of it.

“Listen, happy endings is fine if they turn out happy,” said Granny, glaring at the sky.  “But you can’t make ‘em for other people.  Like the only way you could make a happy marriage is by cuttin’ their heads off as soon as they say ‘I do,’ yes? You can’t make happiness…All you can do is make an ending.”

“Bad-assed water”

As usual in a Pratchett novel, there is much in Witches Abroad that’s simply delightful or silly or sparkling or all of the above.  Such as his description of the Genua bayou, including this detail:

“In the swamp the alligators drifted like patches of bad-assed water.”

Or this moment when Magrat has to quickly wake Granny from her sleep:

Granny Weatherwax waking up was quite an impressive sight, and one not seen by many people.

Most people, on waking up, accelerate through a quick panicky pre-consciousness check-up: who am I, where am I, who is he/she, good god, why am I cuddling a policeman’s helmet, what happened last night!

And this is because people are riddled with Doubt.  It is the engine that drives them through their lives.  It is the elastic band in the little model aeroplane of their soul, and they spend their time winding it up until it knots.  Early morning is the worst time — there’s that little moment of panic in case You have drifted away in the night and something else has moved in.  This never happened to Granny Weatherwax.  She went straight from fast sleep to find herself because she always knew who was doing the looking.

“Spontaneously creating”

Or Nanny Ogg encountering gumbo for the first time:

Nanny wandered over and looked into the pot.  Things came to the surface and sank again.  The general color was brown.  Bubbles formed, grew, and burst stickily with an organic ‘blop.’ Anything could be happening in that pot.  Life could be spontaneously creating.

Or a particular mountain range that the three witches go through on their way to Genua:

They were the kind of mountains where winters went for their summer holidays.

“Come true”

Those are the usual touches of grace and wit that the reader expects in a Pratchett novel.

In Witches Abroad, there’s a heavier message than usual.  It’s about the misguidedness of believing in stories.

A fairy tale seems all sweetness and light.  But think about it.  That’s what Pratchett forces the reader to do. 

A story is just a dream — a dream of happiness.  But there are other sorts of stories that can be told, with other roots.

As the three witches neared Genua, they became more and more uneasy.

In Genua, someone set out to make dreams come true.

Remember some of your dreams?

Patrick T. Reardon


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