I know. Two classic posts in a row? I just found out that E.L. Konigsburg died today and I wanted to honor her by reposting this, which I had originally posted in March 2010. Rest in Peace, Ms. Konisburg!
Image courtesy of Goodreads
Guys? I’m kind of an idiot. Do you see that comma in the title – the one between Jennifer and Hecate? See, I never noticed that comma and always assumed that Hecate was Jennifer’s last name. Even knowing that Hecate has witchcraft connotations. I thought it was like how Remus Lupin’s last name kind of indicates he’s a fucking werewolf, you know? But nope. I re-read this and there is actually no mention of Jennifer’s last name. So yeah, I first read this book in third grade and since then, until about a week ago, I assumed Jennifer’s last name was Hecate. Even when I heard the word Hecate used in one of Willow Rosenberg’s spells, I still didn’t make the connection. That’s why no one calls me a genius.
Elizabeth is a lonely fifth grader. She’s new to town and the newest and shortest girl in her class at William McKinley Elementary. One her walk to school on halloween, she spies a shoe dangling in her face. Elizabeth looks up and sees Jennifer sitting in a tree. They’re both dressed as pilgrims for halloween, but Elizabeth can tell that Jennifer’s costume is authentic. Jennifer is pretty much the most cryptic little girl ever. She tells Elizabeth that she’s a witch. Not for halloween, but she’s a witch all the time. Elizabeth thinks this is true because Jennifer somehow convinces Elizabeth to give up her cookies, can walk without looking where she’s going, and she seems to already know who Elizabeth is before they’re introduced.
They go trick or treating and Jennifer casts a spell on her bag to get the most halloween candy. The spell seems to work, though Jennifer really just has a system to fool people into thinking she has less candy then she actually does, causing them to give her more candy than Elizabeth. Elizabeth is entranced with Jennifer, particularly that Jennifer seems to have no manners, but adults seem to love her anyway.
And so begins what appears to be an incredibly one-sided friendship. Jennifer decides she’s going to make Elizabeth her apprentice witch, and forces Elizabeth to come to the library every Saturday, tells Elizabeth what books to read and gives her a set of completely arbitrary apprentice-witch rules to follow, including what she needs to eat each week. They have a ceremony with chants and a key necklace.
The girls decide to make an ointment that will make them fly. It’s an ointment that will take several months to concoct. So every Saturday, they meet, do some witchcraft chants, go to the library and talk about their ointment. Saturdays are the only time they talk. Jennifer doesn’t acknowledge Elizabeth in school – they are in different classes. Jennifer decides that Elizabeth has done a good job as apprentice and promotes her to journeyman witch. This involves an even more arbitrary set of rules.
Rules that make it difficult when Elizabeth is invited to the birthday party of Cynthia, the class Regina George, if you know what I mean. Elizabeth is not allowed to eat cake or play musical chairs. But she does seem to freak out the other kids at the party by knowing exactly who brought what gift before Cynthia opens it and by finding the treasure hunt treasure right away. Jennifer points out that it was Elizabeth’s involvement in witchcraft that lead her to do that.
The girls get a toad and name him Hilary Ezra. He’s a good pet. Jennifer says that he needs to be the first ingredient for their flying ointment, which is still quite a while away from being ready. Eventually, though, they have the ingredients together. Jennifer brings a big kettle and lights a fire under it. She adds all the ingredients to the ointment. And when she’s ready to add Hilary Ezra, Elizabeth stops her. Jennifer puts out the fire and tells Elizabeth she’ll never make a proper witch. Elizabeth gets angry and realizes that Jennifer has been mean.
A few days later, Elizabeth is in her apartment thinking about Jennifer. And she puts together a few clues about the little she knows about Jennifer. Getting watermelons in the dead of winter, the unusual plants she got for the ointment, the authentic pilgrim outfit and most of all – that she didn’t put Hilary Ezra into the kettle first, like she’d said was necessary and a whole bunch of little cryptic things that Jennifer had said and Elizabeth realized that Jennifer’s not a witch. Her father is the caretaker of plants for the wealthiest woman in town, known for her antiques and Jennifer has been just as lonely as she, Elizabeth, has been. As Elizabeth realizes this, the doorbell rings and it’s Jennifer. Not Jennifer as a witch, but Jennifer as Elizabeth’s friend.
- I went to school in a pretty rural, conservative area. There were a few kids in my class who were not allowed to read this book. You know, because witchcraft = devil worship. These kids also could not celebrate halloween, and most likely now have kids who aren’t allowed to read Harry Potter. The fact that it was verboten to some kids was exactly the reason I was excited to read it. And so it has gone for my whole life. And one of the 2,589 reasons I no longer live in that town.
- Elizabeth can be a little bit of a fire-cracker in her own right. When she’s bored, she goes to the elevator in her building, waits for someone else to get on, then pushes all the buttons before hopping off. Also, she is completely not sorry that she knocked over a cracker display at the A&P. Also, she is well aware of how she gets her own way. In her own words, “I was an only child. And a nag.” I love that self-awareness!
- Elizabeth’s great Aunt is named Drusilla. Every time the name Drusilla is mentioned, it is in context with some kind of witchcraft. This book, Morbidda Destiny’s granddaughter, and of course, Spike’s ex (and Sire) from Buffy.
- The kind of weird thing about Elizabeth is that she’s incredibly judgmental (in a kind of Harriet the Spy way) of other people. Yet she’s not at all judgmental of Jennifer until the very end when she believes Jennifer is going to kill Hilary Ezra. And I can’t quite figure out why.
- This book was first published in 1967, and the edition I have was published in 1969. At the school assembly, Elizabeth can tell which mother is Jennifer’s, because she’s the only ‘Negro’ in the audience. Please, if someone has an updated version, can you tell me if that’s been changed? It’s kind of jarring to read that word in 2010.
- This was E.L. Kongisburg’s first book. This book was awarded a Newbery Honor. The same exact year, her second book, From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler won a Newbery Medal. How’s that for a way to start a writing career? She also illustrated this book.