In this series, I’m showcasing books written by women authors through reviews of and responses to them written by other women authors. The idea? To better highlight some of the many contributions women have made to literature in our history and now. If you’d like to contribute to this series, leave a comment below, and I’ll be in touch with the details. To see the first post in this series, click here.
Today’s book response is by, well, me. It’s about a series of books by Patricia Coombs which were really important to me when I was a child about a character named Dorrie the Little Witch. For information about this series and how to get these books, click here.
Dorrie the Little Witch’s First Library Card
Certain periods in my life have been marked by things other than time. In my childhood, I divided the years by how many siblings I had, or whether my godfather was still living in Texas or my cousin Chuck was still alive. In college, I could always remember which semester something happened in by the classes I was taking or whom (if anyone) I was dating.
One constant throughout my life has been my reading habits––that I had some, and they were voracious. My young childhood was flavored by fairy tales; I think the first book I ever read on my own was Grimms’ common canon. In my early adolescence I discovered and devoured the classics by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lewis Carroll, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott. Then came novels from the 1950s and 1960s aimed at teenage girls and focused on solving mysteries (I preferred Trixie Belden to Nancy Drew) or dating; books like Love Is A Four-Letter Word and Johnny and Janie are still vivid in my mind. My high school and college years were all about fantasy and science fiction (but mostly fantasy). At university, I was introduced to magic realism, the more academically acceptable cousin of fantasy, and Gothic literature, and I eagerly invited those genres to join the party too.
Dorrie the Little Witch has been one of my favorite literary characters since I was seven years old for a lot of reasons––but most especially because it was over Dorrie that my mother performed one of the most awesome feats I’ve ever seen her do, when she came to my defense at the public library.
Turning seven was a big deal for me. Seven years old was considered the age of reason in my family’s faith (Catholicism), and so in second grade at my parochial school, we got treated to a slew of new experiences and obligations. First Penance, First Communion, really being held accountable for understanding our moral choices. And those were all fine and good, I supposed, and somewhat interesting, I guessed, but the really exciting thing I’d been looking forward to was that at seven years old, I could apply for my own library card.
My mother took me to the Walter Branch Public Library down the road from our house so I could eagerly fill out the application, but when I turned it in to the crusty librarian at the circulation desk, she told me I would have to wait for my card in the mail. My mom checked out a Harlequin novel for herself and let me pick out a couple of Dorrie books, marvelous stories by Patricia Coombs about a little witch who didn’t quite have herself all together and whose mother, Big Witch, was usually a little too busy with her job (as an important witch in their town) to be the most effective and involved single parent. But Dorrie had Cook (the somewhat surly domestic help) and Gink (her black cat) and her friends, so she was okay.
Dorrie had messy hair and a black dress. She had elf-like black shoes and a black hat whose point was crinkled. Her room was as messy as my closet, and her long striped socks were always mismatched. She got herself into little episodes of trouble, like protagonists are wont to do, and she often had to escape it without any help from the absent or otherwise incapacitated or ineffectual grown-ups, like the protagonists in children’s books must.
I wanted to be Dorrie. I pushed the couches in our den together to make a fort and stood on top of the piled cushions and blankets, intoning the spells Dorrie recited in her stories, anxious and thrilled and waiting for something to happen. Whatever befell Dorrie never happened to me, but something important was imprinting on my brain. I didn’t know yet what was happening, but I could feel my affection for literature growing and warming me in ways that little else did.
I loved Dorrie the Little Witch like I loved fairy tales; I adored her like I adored my Yorkshire terrier, Wizard; I cherished her like I cherished the activity of reading itself. Dorrie, a character unknown to most of my classmates and cousins and every babysitter who set foot in our house, was my witch.
I checked the mail daily, waiting for my library card to arrive. The mailbox, on the wall next to our front door, was too high up for me to reach when I stood on the porch, so I had to bring a dining room chair over to stand on. I leaned across the threshold each day to peer into the box, but each day was another chapter of disappointment and despair. When my card finally showed up about a week and a half after I’d made my application, I tore open the white and taupe envelope and stared at my name in beautiful dot-matrix printing and squealed. I made my mother take me to Walter Branch that day.
I marched into that library like I owned the place. I waved at the other patrons sitting on beanbags and in chairs to my right and turned my nose up at my formerly favorite section, the “audiobooks” (plastic snap-handled bags containing children’s books and the vinyl records on which their text had been recorded). I reached the stacks and then raced to the children’s fiction section, plopped myself down in front of the C’s and went to town.
I pulled out all the Dorrie books I could find. Dorrie and the Blue Witch, Dorrie and the Wizard’s Spell, Dorrie and the Haunted House, Dorrie and the Magic Elixir, Dorrie and the Witch’s Imp, Dorrie and the Halloween Plot. The list went on. I stacked up ten Dorrie books, all the ones I hadn’t read yet, and hefted the impressive collection across the library to the circulation desk, through an obstacle course of bookshelves and other children, of tables and chairs and rolling carts filled with books. I heaved my treasure onto the dark brown laminate counter and reached my little hands out to keep them from tumbling all over the place.
The librarian, looking like an extra out of some children’s movie whose underlying theme was the inability of grown-ups to relate to kids, peered down at me over, no joke, half-moon glasses. I was so short and my stack of books so tall on the counter, she had to lean over far enough to see me that her glasses slipped down to the tip of her nose and threatened to slide off.
“Where is your mother?” she asked.
I pointed across the room to my mom, browsing the adult fiction section for a murder mystery novel. I called to her, and she walked over.
“Are you all ready?” she asked me, smiling.
“Did you find enough books?” she teased me good-naturedly.
I giggled. “It’s a start!” I said.
The librarian wasn’t nearly as amused as we were. She half-sighed, half-snorted. “Do you have a library card?” she asked me.
I proudly produced my new card from my pocket and held it up for her to see. She reached over and took it from my fingers. I couldn’t stop grinning. She peered at the card, then at me, then at the card again.
“Is this your first time to check out any books on your own?” she asked me.
“Then you may check out only two books.”
As her meaning washed over me, I thought I might cry.
“You may check out only two books the first time you use your card.” She pushed the card back at me and settled into her chair, finality in her posture.
“But I’ve picked out ten,” I said, hoping she would understand the importance of my needing to take those books home right then. I couldn’t articulate how much these books meant to me, how much reading meant to me. I couldn’t express the plain and simple truth that Dorrie the Little Witch was my friend, and in choosing to take all her books home, it was as if I’d invited her to a party at my house, and by leaving her books at the library, I was shunning her, telling her she couldn’t come play with me after all. So I just repeated, “I picked out ten.”
“You can have two,” the librarian repeated. She turned around to the other side of the desk and began shuffling papers.
I didn’t know what to do, what else to say. I’d pled my case. I looked at the lopsided stack of books on the counter and realized I wasn’t even tall enough to pull them all down without scattering them on the floor, and I sure didn’t want to make a mess now in front of this librarian, for fear she would tear up my library card and not let me check out any books, ever. I couldn’t even move.
My mother cleared her throat. “Okay, then,” she said in the stridently cheerful voice she used when making lemonade out of the disappointing lemons of circumstance. She picked up the books and held them down to me. “Go ahead and pick two.” I stared at the stack. Two? “Go ahead, Angélique, just pick your two favorites.” Her voice was clipped, efficient.
How could I possibly choose? Of course I couldn’t, so I glumly slid the top two into my hands. My mother replaced the rest on the circulation desk, just off to the side, and put my slim selection and the book she’d chosen for herself on the counter. She put her library card on top of her book and my library card on top of mine, and cleared her throat again, more forcefully. When the librarian turned around to look at my mother, she gave the woman a tight smile. “We’re ready,” she said.
Checking out the books was a quick process. The glowing enthusiasm I had expected everyone in the room would share as they congratulated me on my first library card was absent, the muffled sounds of people whispering and pages turning and books being shelved and selected echoing the silence of my muted joy.
“There now,” my mother said, trying to cheer me, “you’ve just checked out your first books! Isn’t that exciting? Good job!”
I nodded, clutching my two Dorrie books, my gaze lingering on the eight I had abandoned. She gently ushered me out the door, and as we walked back to the car, she replaced her sternly chipper voice for a more sympathetic tone.
“I know that was disappointing, honey,” she said. “I’m sorry.” I just nodded. We got to the car, and as my mother unlocked it and I climbed in, she said, “Let’s go home, and you can read your books, and when you’re done with them, we’ll come back and get the others.”
This did cheer me up some, and I started reading one book as soon as we pulled out of the parking lot. By the time we’d been home half an hour, I’d devoured both of them, and although I was sad to take them back to the library so soon, I knew I had to relinquish them to get the rest of my stack. I thought of it as a hostage negotiation.
I walked into the living room where my mother was reading. “I’ve finished them,” I said.
“So soon?” she asked. “All right then.”
And true to her word, my mother took me back to the library right then. I walked up to the circulation desk where the librarian still sat and launched the books onto the counter. The other eight were still sitting there.
“I’ve finished,” I told her. “May I please have the other books now?”
She looked skeptical. “That was fast,” she said.
“She’s a quick reader,” my mother said, all the friendliness in her voice gone. “Now let her have those other books and stop giving her a hard time, or I’m going to report you to the main branch for harassing a seven-year-old.”
The librarian looked stunned. My mother’s face was resolute. I held my breath.
No one said another word as the librarian checked out the other eight books to my now-veteran library card. She pushed them across the desk to me. I tried to pull them down and nearly dropped them, but I managed. Once I had them secure in my arms, I beamed at my mother.
“All set?” she asked me. I nodded, smiling. “Good.” She held the door open. “Now let’s get out of here.”
Dorrie the Little Witch, like so many little witches, has been relegated, when remembered at all, to the season of October, but she’s always there in my subconscious, drinking tea with the Mad Hatter and wondering when Big Witch will come home. Hallowe’en always brings out that childlike spirit in me, and I channel my inner Dorrie. Part of me wants to return to the Hallowe’ens of my youth, before my cousin died, when we and all the kids we were friends with in our neighborhood went on trick-or-treating hayrides. When dressing up in costume was normal and fun and exciting and didn’t have to be confined to something other people did. When a holiday couldn’t be ruined for everybody in the parish because one ignorant and uptight family decided the holiday was all about devil worship.
I can’t bring back the past. But what I can do is share Dorrie with everyone else. Her books are coming back into print; you can find them here. And when you do, you might find something of yourself––a charming independence, a domestic flexibility¾in them as well.
Even after so many years, I still do.
All images obtained from a search for free images of the character.
To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.
The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.