When we moved to Switzerland, I’d just learned to read in English. My school was French-speaking and run by draconian Swiss nuns who made us write in fountain pens, on European-style cursive letter in each of those small graph paper squares. We had “dictée”s, which were much harder and scarier than the American spelling tests I was used to. The teacher would read an entire paragraph aloud (with lots of near-homophones like “sur” and “sous”) that we were meant to write down without error. My mom and I spent my lunch breaks working together on mastering these words, though neither of us spoke French yet.
But, because the move was only temporary, my mom also made me practice reading in English. At some point this became more difficult than reading in French and I remember whining about it. It was when we were living in Switzerland that I first read some of my favorite books (Harriett the Spy!). But the book I remember best is the one I most often practiced reading: Audrey and Don Woods’s Heckedy Peg.
I’d forgotten most of the particulars (just the refrain “I’m Heckedy Peg! I’ve lost my leg! Let me in!”) until I ordered it for Thea and Simon. Like all of the Don and Audrey Wood books the illustrations are disconcerting and uncanny, both beautiful and ugly.
Here is the basic plot: a poor, single mother has 7 children. They are named Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (one of the many things that perplexes me is that the oldest is Monday, not Sunday). They live in what appears to be the medieval village thatched-roof type place of all fairytales. One day, the mother decides that she has saved enough money to buy each of her hard-working children a treat at the market as a reward for the hard work they’ve been doing. The each request something small and specific (butter, a pitcher, pudding). While the mother (who looks like Rosie the Riveter but also a little like those Soviet working women propaganda posters) is at the market, a witch comes and tricks the children into letting her in.
The witch turns the children into food, loads them into her wheelbarrow, wheels them through town (RIGHT PAST THEIR UNKNOWING MOTHER, one can see on closer examination) and to her witch cave. A blackbird helps lead the broken-hearted mother to the witch and the mother pounds on the door demanding to get in. The witch, who at that very moment has one hand full of pie (Tuesday) says no—not because she’s going to just gobble up the children, but rather because the mother’s feet might be dirty. The mother takes off her shoes, the witch suspects the socks are dirty. The mother takes off the socks, the witch suspects her feet are dirty and this smart mother pretends to cut off her feet and just a moment later walks back to the witch’s door on her knees, feet cleverly tucked in her working woman’s skirt, and is finally let in.
Once inside the witch agrees to return the children only if the mother can correctly identify which food is which child. Here is the best part! The mother, who as my friend Jenna put it when we were reminiscing about this story, knows her children so well, she can identify them by what they want! The bread goes with the child that wanted butter, the pie with the child that wanted a knife, etc. The children turn back into themselves, the mother stands up, they chase the furious old witch out of her cave, back out of her witchy-woods, over the bridge where she leaps into the river (can she swim? Simon is very concerned about this. And it seems important to me, too: does she die or does she swim away to some other town to eat some other children?).
The kids have a lot of questions, most of which are some version of the same questions I have. Thea obsesses about the image on the book’s cover where the children are playing just after their mother’s gone to the market and through the open window we can see the witch, tiny silhouette, approaching the house. Did the mom pass the witch on the way to the house? This seems almost as cruel as the moment when the witch wheels the children past the mother! If the mother is so attune to their wants later, might she not have recognized them even then? And, why does the witch have this strange, particular rule about dirty shoes/socks/feet? It’s some kind of a test for the mom? To see how much she loves the children? Or how smart she is? An ability to love them so much she’s sacrifice herself yet also the intelligence and wherewithal to not have to do so? And, that bite of pie the witch was about to take! What part of Tuesday was that? Did the witch carefully put it back on the pie and so Tuesday was remade without a missing piece of his body?
I love this book and so does Thea, although it scares us both. It makes me think a lot about how often I’m not paying attention to what my kids’ wants really mean. It makes me in awe of this attuned and industrious single mother to seven children (she must be exhausted!). It’s also raised a lot of questions about why we don’t eat people, which is not really something I anticipated discussing with my five and three year old.