April Witch by Majgull Axelsson
Translated by Linda Schenck
Villard, 2002, English Edition (1st published in Sweden in 1997)
Fiction; 408 pgs
Rating: (Very Good)
First Sentence: “Who’s out there?” asks my sister.
Reason for Reading: A friend of mine from The Netherlands first mentioned Majgull Axelsson's April Witch to me, and I was able to find a copy online in October of 2004. Since that time, it has made its home on my To Be Read shelf waiting its turn. When choosing books to read for the TBR Challenge, I tried to select books I have wanted to read above others and yet have not had the chance to get to. April Witch was one of them. It's one of those books that leave me wondering why I waited so long.
4th book for the TBR Challenge and 2nd book selection for the Spring Reading Thing.
Comments: April Witch reminded a little of White Oleander by Janet Fitch and Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards, and yet it has a mystical side to it that adds an interesting dimension.
April Witch is a multi-faceted story about four foster sisters, linked together by one woman, Ella Johansson. Desirée, the deformed and crippled daughter who was abandoned to institutional care at birth, has an unusual gift. She is an April witch, one who has a disabled body but a very strong mind. She is able to transport her spirit into other living beings to observe, influence and sometimes control their behavior. All of her life, Desirée has felt unwanted and she struggles to find meaning in her life. With the help of Dr. Hubertsson, with whom Desirée shares a special bond, Desirée unravels her past in search of her own story. Putting to use her special gift, she sets out to discover which of the three foster children her birth mother took in is living the life that she should have had.
Margareta was abandoned at birth by her own mother, taken in by Ella Johansson. Most of her life Margareta has felt empty inside and continues to search for something to fill that void in her life. Christina was a victim of a horrific physical abuse at the hands of her mother, a young girl shut inside of herself, not trusting anyone when she first comes to Ella's. She now appears to have the perfect life, at least on the surface. And then there is Birgitta, the daughter of a neglectful alcoholic mother. While Margareta and Christina have both found some success in life, one a physicist and the other a physician, it is Birgitta who has fallen the farthest, becoming a drug addict, living her life on and off the streets.
Each of the women carries their own baggage, struggling to come to terms with their pasts, who they are, and the direction their lives have taken. They are full of fear, frustration, bitterness, and need--yet all still maintain some semblance of hope. It is their inner struggles that bring them together and yet also keep them apart. Majgull Axelsson has created authentic characters with very distinct voices and experiences. Their stories creep under the skin and settle there to percolate.
From a social perspective, the novel touches on such issues as socialism, institutionalization, and the child welfare system in Sweden during the 1950's. The latter two topics were especially interesting to me from a professional aspect and ultimately, I did not see many differences in thoughts and theories between Sweden and the United States--at least not on the surface.
There was a scientific thread throughout the novel that concerned me at first. I worried that it would get in the way of my enjoyment of the story, however, that proved not to be the case. Once I got over my initial concern, I was swept into the story and the lives of the characters. What followed was a heart wrenching and insightful novel that I will not soon forget.
Favorite Part: I could probably fill pages with my favorite moments in this novel. The author did such a good job of bringing the characters to life and tackling difficult issues. Some highlights:
I thought the author did a good job of showing the differences in attitudes about the severely disabled during the time that Desirée was a child. There were doctors like Redelius and Zimmerman who saw no hope for growth or learning by someone as disabled as Desirée, and yet there were also doctors like Dr. Preben who took a completely different view, encouraging growth and development in his patients no matter their medical diagnosis.
One of my favorite scenes in the book was the beginning of Desirée’s lessons, when her roommate Elsegard at the crippled children’s home practiced her teaching techniques on Desirée. The other roommates joined in as well. All of this despite Dr. Redelius belief that Desirée’s disabilities were so bad that she was not capable of learning.
There was also a scene in which Elsegard visits Desirée at her apartment when they are adults. It was a significant moment for both women, and showed a softer side to Desirée.
Of the foster sisters’ stories, I was most taken with Christina’s story. It is the one that impacted me the most, although each of the characters’ stories was powerful in their own right. My least favorite character was Birgitta, but not because the author failed to adequately represent her—her anger and bitterness flew out of the pages, and at times I had difficulty empathizing with her because I more often wanted her to wake up and realize she was headed down the wrong path.
Interesting Factoid: The author, in her research, was only able to find one reference to an April witch, and that was through one of her favorite author’s Ray Bradbury’s short story.
The names of the four sisters, Christina, Margareta, Birgitta and Desirée, are also the names of the four sisters of the Swedish king.
Note about the Author: The Swedish author received the 1997 August Prize for April Witch.
Miscellaneous: Our late night action: Some hit the fire hydrant and two giant wooden phone poles outside my house just after midnight this morning. He lost his fender and front driver side tire right where the fire hydrant used to be. He sent the fire hydrant flying about 7 feet into our front yard, water shooting up into the air. We had our own geyser right outside our window. The driver also ended up hitting our neighbor’s car which was parked in the street, his own vehicle coming to a stop about three houses down the street. Luckily, no one was hurt.