Book Bag: “In Other Lands” and “Silencing the Women: The Witch Trials of Mary Bliss Parsons”

Friday, October 13, 2017

by Steve Pfarrer


By Sarah Rees Brennan

Big Mouth House/Small Beer Press


Irish fantasy writer Sarah Rees Brennan has explored a number of imaginary worlds in her previous books for young-adult readers. But her newest novel, “In Other Lands,” considers the intersection of real and fantasy worlds — while also examining a range of sexuality — with a protagonist who might be “the crankiest nerd who ever fell into a magical land.”

As the story begins, 13-year-old Elliot, a wiseass whose sarcasm is his means of dealing with the bullying he faces in school, travels with some of his classmates to a “random field” outside Devon, England. The reason for this class trip isn’t clear to Elliot, but when he poses a question about it, one of his antagonists tells him to “zip it” or he’ll “thump him.”

Pretty soon, though, Elliot discovers a huge stone wall in the field that evidently only he can see, and before long he’s being led over it by an oddly-dressed woman. It’s Elliot’s introduction to The Borderlands, a magical land with elves, harpies, mermaids and other creatures as well as its own school, where classes have much more to do with weapons training than book learning. 

Elliot’s cell phone also begins to smoke and spark. As one other student says to him, “Your little gadgets from across the Border just don’t work here.”

“Of course not,” Elliot says. “The Industrial Revolution was a silly business anyway.”

“In Other Lands,” published by Big Mouth House, an imprint of Small Beer Press in Easthampton, is part fantasy, part coming-of-age story, following Elliot over the next four years as he navigates his new home — and occasional returns to his old one — and discovers he’s attracted both to Serene, a beautiful Elvish girl, and Luke, a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy warrior.

“Elliot’s razor-edged wit and general inability to keep his mouth shut make for blissfully entertaining reading,” says Publishers Weekly, which adds that the book’s “explorations of gender stereotypes, fluid sexuality, and awkward romance only add to the depth and delight of this glittering contemporary fantasy.”



By Kathy-Ann Becker

One of the enduring stories from the early history of Northampton concerns Mary Bliss Parsons, who lived in Northampton from about 1655 to 1680 and faced repeated accusations she was a witch.

In “Silencing the Women,” Kathy-Ann Becker, a distant ancestor of Parsons, retells the story in a novel, told in Mary Parsons’ voice and tracing her life, from girlhood in England, to her family’s move to New England in the 1630s, and her marriage to Joseph Parsons in Connecticut in 1646.

The couple later moved to Springfield, then to Northampton in the 1650s; the family’s financial success led a neighbor, Sarah Bridgman, whose family was struggling, to spread rumors that Mary Parsons was a witch. She was blamed for the death of people’s livestock and children and other misfortunes.

Becker, a former Northampton resident who nows lives in Wendell, traces that story and a later accusation against Parsons that saw her brought to trial in Boston in the 1670s for supposed witchcraft.

In an introduction, Becker writes that her research into the novel convinced her that Parsons, more than anything, was a victim of misogyny, disliked by men — and some women — for being too outspoken and too pretty. Her husband’s financial success was also a source of jealously for some residents.

Testimony from Parsons’ court records, Becker writes, “reveals an unholy alliance created by the elite and self-selected brotherhood of men who controlled government, religion, and the marketplace. To this, Mary Bliss Parsons, like all women, was expected to contribute only her contrition.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Kathy-Ann Becker will lead a book talk and share a slideshow about Mary Bliss Parsons on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Amherst Women’s Club, 35 Triangle Street. 256-6118 for reservations.