Steph Recommends: The Thickety: A Path Begins by J. A. White

the thickety

Hardcover, 488 pages

Published 2014 by Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins)

Source: public library

The Thickety: A Path Begins begins with the execution of our protagonist’s mother, and the protagonist, Kara’s, own near-death by the same means. As Nafiza has noted, it is an unusually dark opening for a middle grade novel, although without the horror of the beginning of The Graveyard Book. The tone – and the premise – are clearly established: the villagers, as a crowd, are easily led by a fanatic hungry for murder execution, against whom Kara and her family are powerless. Only not quite, because Kara is a witch. Which is illegal.

It was a pleasant surprise to find Kara not full of anger, despite her woes.

It would be so much easier, Kara thought, if I could bring myself to hate them. The villagers had certainly given her enough reason, clouding Kara’s days with disdain, despite the fact that she had never hurt anyone. But Kara had always been slow to anger, easy to forgive. She saw the way they treated one another: the smiles, the easy conversation. There was good there. (p. 102-103)

A little too generous an observation for a twelve year old outcast? Perhaps. Kara begins remarkably mature for her age, but then, she has the burden of looking after her younger and asthmatic* brother, Taff. Actually, Kara has to look after their father, too. Since the fatal night, their father has been largely emotionally and intellectually absent, which means that their house is run down and their fields are not being properly tended. Starvation is a possibility, one Kara is desperate to fend off. She gets little help from the villagers: not only are Kara and Taff witch’s children and thus suspect, but Kara closely resembles her mother, who came from outside. Unlike the light-haired, light-eyed villagers, Kara has hair and eyes “black as a forest night” (23).

Kara, the mirror image of her mother, was little more than a walking reminder of what had happened (p. 103)

But what did happen? That’s half of the story. Nobody is willing to talk about that night, beyond the bare facts that three people died, the final being Kara’s mother. So the story is a murder mystery, in a sense. It is also a witch trials story, albeit one in a land where magic is real. It reads like a cult/horror story, too, with the hostile, sheep-like villagers, a creepy teacher who favours corporeal punishment, a class system which places persons of lesser status in perilous and unrewarding jobs, a fanatical headman, and a mean girl whom everyone else considers a model villager. An air of foreboding permeates the story, along with the sense of impending doom.

There were a few minor breaks in logic. Kara, like everyone else in the village, “had been taught from birth that nothing was more obscene or inhuman than magic” (103), yet at one point in the narrative she privately considers her parents’ deep love to have been magic – magic here is used in a figurative sense and implicitly cast in a positive light which is inconsistent with the rest of the narrative.

The three villains are obvious, and unfortunately typed. The shadowy figure of Sordyr, the Forest Demon, remains largely a bogeyman in the background, proof that the perils of witchcraft are real and that the encroaching forest (the Thickety) is beyond unsafe. The village leader, or fen’de, Stone, could have been imported directly from any witch trial or Inquisition story. The most immediate threat to Kara is her classmate Grace, ** Stone’s daughter. Grace is a classic girl villain: she is beautiful, feminine, and popular. Golden-curled, blue-eyed Grace, with her ever-changing supply of hair ribbons, is the ideal village girl, adored and admired wherever she goes by boys her own age and by all the adults, both groups whom she easily manipulates. Oh yes, and she (naturally) has it in for Kara. I didn’t find Grace nuanced, despite her withered leg, dead mother, and the consequent pain of both losses.

As is the way with horror/witch/cult stories, the thunder clouds looming overhead build slowly as tension subtly increases, and then all at once everything goes bad. And I do mean everything. There is no shortage of death and general nastiness. Which is fitting.

The story’s great strength was the relationship between Kara and Taff. They felt like real siblings: they share a sense of humour and pass jokes; they create stories, both verbal game-stories and a deeper, written-and-illustrated fantasy which, though hidden, is a source of comfort to them. Kara’s closeness to her brother is the truest part of this story; certain exchanges could be used as classroom examples of how to write good child siblings in relationship.

Where the story fell short for me was in the emotions. Despite several plot twists, the set-up was transparent, which left me with little reason to become emotionally involved with the characters. The storm clouds were so obviously overhead that waiting for them to break dragged on, despite the shock of how very bad things became once the storm began. The minor characters lacked depth and delineation, with one (swiftly removed) exception. And the ending – well, I’ll avoid spoilers, but I felt as though the book ended in almost the same position as it began.

I don’t love The Thickety: A Path Begins the way Steph and Nafiza do, and I don’t plan to read the sequel. But there were some lovely passages, and middle grade readers, who won’t have read much cult/horror lit, might very well enjoy the story. To older readers who want a taste of witch trial horror I would recommend The Crucible by Arthur Miller; for village hivemind, manipulation, and judgement, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

* At least, this is how I read Taff’s sickness. Asthma isn’t named in the story, but the setting is vaguely pre-industrial or pilgrim-esque – in the village, at least; in the wider world, who knows?

** What’s with the trend of naming girls for virtues they either embody or utterly lack? Grace’s character is sufficiently evil without the obvious contrast of her (mis)name. Well, at least there are no Finns in this story. 

  • I need to read this!

  • The plot idea sounds interesting enough. Is this the author’s firs book perhaps?

    • Janet

      From his website, yes.
      The pages on his website are charming and funny, actually. I hadn’t looked before, as I try to avoid potential bias for or against authors when I’m reviewing their books, but the FAQ and About pages are neat. Like other newer authors, his online presence seems unmediated and warm/informal.

  • Indeed – liked his website. Never heard of the The Thickety series before but it looks interesting. I know I have to read more other people’s fantasy books, but squeezing in the time with a full time job and writing book myself… I admit I do most of my fiction reading while I eat…

    • Janet

      Isn’t that what meals are really meant for? 🙂

  • It sounds like an okay book but don’t think I’ll be rushing to read it – nothing more annoying than when the emotions don’t quite read right with the situation! Lovely review!

    • Janet