February 20, 2012

Chasing the White Witch

by Marina Cohen
157 pp.
Ages 8-12

The old adage "Be careful what you wish for" should have been the title of the book that twelve-and-a-half-year-old Claire picks up at the grocery story.  But it isn't.  While Claire deals with her first pimple (extraordinarily perched at the end of her nose), enduring the relentless taunts of her fifteen-year-old brother, Jordan ("But I can't see you behind the mountain in front of your nose. Oh wait a minute - that is your nose!"; pg. 10) and then noticing her enemy, the beautiful and perfect Hollis Van Horn, is in the grocery store too, the little book that flutters to her feet is titled Remedies, Rituals and Incantations.  It must have been a sign - right? Claire thinks so.

Her first order of business is to get rid of that nasty pimple, and fortuitously there is an acne remedy in the little green book penned by the White Witch.  When the concoction (which includes yogurt, oatmeal, Limburger cheese and garlic) with the prescribed chant doesn't work, Claire reads the introduction (which she had ignored earlier) that states that the spellcaster must be pure of mind and spirit.  After cleansing herself by being helpful, meditating and taking a hot bath, the pimple is gone, and Claire is encouraged to co-opt her best friend, Paula-Jean, into performing an avenging spell on  Jordan.  The  spell works but Paula-Jean's uneasiness with the magic makes her aloof and ready to yield to Hollis' offer of friendship.  In reaction, impulsive Claire puts a hex on Hollis.  The unforeseen consequences of that act send Claire to team up with seriously-ill Hollis in order to locate the White Witch and learn how to make things right.  

Marina Cohen's earlier books (Ghost Ride, Dundurn, 2009; Mind Gap, Dundurn, 2011), both well received by readers, examine the serious consequences of choices made by young men.  In Chasing the White Witch, the theme is similar but I enjoyed the light-hearted manner in which Marina Cohen addresses it.  While the consequences of casting spells could be dire, the reader is fairly sure that the outcome of this story will not be tragic; after all, first you have to suspend disbelief to even accept that this magic works.  And Cohen's choice of materials (Limburger cheese?) and the farcical nature of the chanting suggest a story based in "make-believe" rather than reality.

But, it is the humour in the story that is most enchanting (pun intended), from Jordan and Claire's relationship (e.g., "Jordan could bungee-jump over cactuses using spaghetti as far as I was concerned."; pg. 16) to the publisher's name (Mixed Pickle Press) to Claire's imagination (e.g., "I had imagined the green crusty blotches and hobbit-feet and all.."; pg. 85) and her father's endless stream of aphorisms (If you kick a stone, you'll hurt your foot; pg. 29; Where you are going is more important than how fast you get there; pg. 69) and her reactions to them (e.g., "Please, Dad, I don't have time to do something as trivial as think"; pg. 70). As convinced as Claire is about her power to cast spells, her take on the circumstances is so authentic but impetuous that the reader is engaged in following her through to the end.

Though a short read at only 157 pages, which is often insufficient to develop any character well and fully, Chasing the White Witch introduces us to several distinct characters, namely Claire, Jordan, Paula-Jean and Hollis, who could easily return in a sequel.  By not tying up Chasing the White Witch's ending in a nice bow, Marina Cohen has created an opportunity to take these characters in a totally different direction and still delight the reader.


  1. Lovely review! Sounds like another winner from Marina Cohen.

  2. Just finished March Break, now I feel a trip to the bookstore coming up... thanks for the nudge in this direction, Marsha.