Written by children's author Eleanor Estes (best known for her "Moffat Family" books and "Ginger Pye"), The Witch Family is probably my favorite of her works. It tells the story of Old Witch, the oldest, most evil, and most powerful of all the witches, and how she was "banquished" to the great bare bleak glass hill for her wickedness by Amy, an ordinary mortal girl living in Garden Lane in Washington, DC.
The action of most chapters is an interspersion of Amy and her best friend Clarissa talking about Old Witch and her adventures and drawing them, and Old Witch and, later, the Little Witch Girl, Hannah, as they actually experience the adventures.
Old Witch is banished and vanquished simultaneously (thus "banquished") by Amy when Amy decides that Old Witch's deeds have become to wicked to permit any more (except, of course, on Halloween, when the true, real, regular old wicked Old Witch must run free) and decrees that she must henceforth live atop a bare, bleak glass hill and be good all her days – save that one, of course. This is shown from both Old Witch's point of view and Amy's, with Amy narrating it and drawing it and Old Witch experiencing it. It's not clear what's supposed to give Amy the power to do the banquishing, and indeed it often seems that Amy's power must come purely from the fact that she's just imagining this – she's a storyteller inside the story Estes is writing, and Old Witch and all the other characters are just figments of her imagination. But at other times, it's not so clear…
This is one of the most clever elements of The Witch Family; it is left very ambiguous throughout most of the book as to whether there really are any such things as the witches that Amy and Clarissa talk and draw about. Certainly the fact that whatever the girls are drawing or talking about is exactly what happens to the Witches would argue that this is just the play of two little girls; at the same time there are strange elements – a thunderstorm out of a clear sky, the disappearance of a bumblebee, a red cardinal who serves as a messenger – that make this assumption less certain.
Only towards the end, during Halloween, do we ever get to see Hannah and Amy in the same place at the same time, proving that Hannah really does exist separately from Amy's imagination. And even that has some doubt thrown upon it by having other children claim to identify the Little Witch Girl as someone from a nearby neighborhood… and then has doubt thrown on that by clear implications that the other children actually have no idea who she really is, only that she has to be the person they guess because there's no other alternative… is there?
The story, also, parallels things in Amy's life. Amy's mother first told her the stories of Old Witch, something that Amy now continues. Little Witch Girl wishes to have a baby sister – something Amy also very much wants – so Amy delivers one to Little Witch Girl, just as she has directed that Little Witch Girl be delivered to Old Witch to keep her from being lonely. Amy and Hannah have the same hair and identical size, though Hannah has more of a traditional Halloween witch's face. Amy has a best friend Clarissa, and soon Hannah has a best friend in Lurie the Mermaid, living inside the glass hill. And both love the beautiful and enormous bumblebee, Malachi, who is gifted with magic and becomes the conscience and watchdog of Old Witch.
There is still some genuine conflict and tension in the book – especially when Old Witch, fed up with Being Good, defies the banquisher's orders and attempts to raid the Easter-Bunnies' painting field – to eat up rabbits, eggs, and all! The occasional intersections of the Witch and Real worlds can also be disquieting, especially when Amy and Clarissa find themselves temporarily atop the Glass Hill and surrounded by witches… including Old Witch herself, who has no reason at all to wish Amy well…
This is really a very charming little book, and much more complex than I had remembered. Upon completing my re-read of it to my daughter, I really had to review it. This is a very good book, and one especially good for young girls, encouraging their imagination and adventurous spirit and leaving a bit of mystery twined throughout even the most mundane of lives. Highly recommended!