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Middle Grade Monday: Cruelty and Community, J.A. White’s Thickety: A Path Begins

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I made it almost to the exact middle point of The Thickety: a Path Begins, by J.A. White (I stopped at chapter 14, for those of you who have read it.) This book showed up a while ago as part of our subscription from Junior Library Guild. I put it out on the new book shelf, but it wasn’t moving, so I decided to read it myself. Most of you probably understand the time constraints of a solo librarian; I don’t read books that sell themselves unless they are from one of my favorite authors.

The Thickety begins with a prologue of the pivotal event in young Kara’s life – the night her mother both gives birth to her younger brother and is hanged as a witch. It’s also the night her father betrays her mother and Kara narrowly escapes being hanged as a witch herself.  The story then skips forward six years to Kara’s life at the age of 12. Kara, her father, and her younger brother Taff, live a barely subsistence life in the same village. Shunned by most of the villagers, Kara tries to keep her family together, shouldering most of the responsibility. Her father has been left a shell of a man, barely able to remember to bathe himself much less care and provide for his family. Kara must attend school, raise her brother, tend to their meager farm, and try to manage her addled father alone. Instead of stepping in to provide for the motherless children and bereaved father, the community in which they live has chosen to shun the family. They are disregarded, maligned, cheated, and abused at every turn. Even those who were once their friends or who are sworn to promote the welfare of their village turn a blind eye to their suffering, reluctant to engage with anyone who has been touched by the taint of magic.

Kara’s village is a community that has chosen isolation over being contaminated by contact with the ‘world.’ They live alone, on an island, in the shadow of the ever encroaching wilderness known as ‘The Thickety.’ All villagers are required to follow the teachings in The Path, the writings of Timoth Clen, a revered former leader who ‘cleansed the world of witches.’ The main threats to this society seem to be witchcraft and the encroaching wildness of the Thickety, which they keep at bay by purchasing unwanted children from other communities who are then required to work at clearing the edge of it. Within the Thickety are many poisonous plants and dangerous beasts. Of course, the real danger to the community is it’s inhabitants developing free thought or having access to information, which is why they are all kept in check by a fear of straying from ‘the Path’ and being censured by the Elders and the community.

We very quickly find that Kara’s mother was, indeed, a witch. As Kara is drawn into the Thickety by a strange bird, she is led to a place where she finds her mother’s grimoire. It is a blank book that affects each individual differently. We see Kara begin to ‘collect’ animals withing the pages of the grimoire that she is then able to summon. All who see it, however, are drawn to it and desire it. It seems that everyone in the community is likely capable of magic.

Along the way in the story, Kara is subjected to numerous acts of cruelty from the villagers. With a few notable exceptions (including the workers in the Thickety) the entire community seems to take delight in taunting, abusing, and cheating her. Even her family is no solace, as she must shoulder the entire burden on her own. Although she loves her brother, he is young and his health is a constant worry. One particular tormenter is a girl of her own age, Grace, who is the daughter of one of the Elders. She is gifted at inflicting pain onKara and yet making it seem as if she is the victim. This double assault leaves Kara in a hopeless position. At the point where I stopped reading, Grace has just learned of the existence of the grimoire and has felt its magical draw and become obsessed with it. I had to stop.

While I’m sure that none of this will bother the vast majority of the students who will be most interested in this title (3rd through 7th graders) it was simply too difficult for me to process. The cruelty and abandonment of her community, even through the lens of how they are being manipulated as a society, was more than I could stand. Students, on the other hand, will quickly empathize with Kara. Her position in life will likely draw their sympathies without dragging them into the depths of despair, as it did me. I probably won’t finish reading it. If I do, it will be on a beautiful summer day when I can sit outside in the sun and then maybe attend a beautiful concert or funny movie afterwards.


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