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The Grimmelings
by Rachael King

Contemporary Aotearoa, Scottish mythology and 'a generous dollop of the fantastical' in a gripping and original novel.

By February 28, 2024April 9th, 2024No Comments

What happens when the people around you believe your family practise witchcraft, and you curse a boy on the school bus who then disappears? Rachael King’s new children’s novel, The Grimmelings, appears after a ten-year break from writing. Fans of Red Rocks, her first novel for children, will be delighted the author is back, with a contemporary fantasy set deep in Aotearoa’s South Island that draws on Scottish myth and legend.

Ella is an ordinary schoolgirl, with an almost-average family: her Scottish words-collecting grandmother Grizzly, who isn’t well; her mother Morag, who is permanently harassed and out of temper; and her waif-like sister Fiona, drawn to magic and witchcraft. The family run a horse-trekking business on a remote lakeside farm, tucked in under a windswept cold hill called the Ben.

But behind the ordinary Kiwi rural life are pressing questions: who killed Ella’s grandfather? Why did Ella’s father disappear six years ago? Why does Ella’s pony Magpie trust nobody but Ella? Why will Grizzly not cut down the rowan tree she planted near their front gate, knowing it’s a noxious weed in Aotearoa?

Adult novels about witches and witchcraft are currently enjoying much popularity, including last year’s The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer. In 2022 the fate of Scottish witches was brought to the public’s attention when Nicola Sturgeon formally apologised for the historical treatment of over 4,000 accused witches in Scotland between the 16th and 18th centuries. While witches and fantasy have always been popular in children’s literature, this novel evokes and echoes the paranoia associated with witches that characterised the witch hunts of Scotland:

‘Whatya gonna do?’ Josh sneered. ‘Put a curse on me? Get your gran to do it? Or your mum? My dad says you’re a house of witches and you can’t pay your rent.’

Thus provoked, Ella does curse Josh. Later, she sees the star of Venus and makes a wish: for a friend. But you mustn’t make a curse and a wish on the same day; and Josh Underhill is missing. He gets off the school bus and disappears into thin air.

The othering of women has always been a key element in naming and isolating witches, and Ella’s female household comes under that scrutiny. The family are treated as unusual and strange, not part of their rural society, after mysterious happenings. ‘Everybody knows what goes on out here,’ Josh’s furious mother says to Morag. ‘What’s always gone on, you and your mother. Nobody’s ever seen you at church on Sunday. Now raising your two girls to follow in your footsteps. If you don’t like the men in your life, you just get rid of them!’

King draws on the words and mythology of Scotland right from page one. Grizzly is a collector of words, and each chapter is headed up with a word from the Scots language. For the first chapter this is the title of the novel, The Grimmelings, meaning ‘the first and last glimmers of light in the day’ – seems appropriate for a story exploring the porous borders of reality.

While The Grimmelings has a distinct focus, setting, and historical context, it has a similar depth and feel to recent children’s books like the paranormal historical novel A Skinful of Shadows (2017) by Frances Hardinge, or October, October (2020) by Katya Balen, where the landscape feels like a character in the novel. The Grimmelings doesn’t, however, draw on Aotearoa’s bush setting in the way that Sonya Wilson’s award-winning Spark Hunter (2021), another recent adventure-fantasy set in the South Island, does. Instead its setting is mountainous and barren lake territory. ‘The Ben’ is the hill behind Ella’s house, which

loomed over them with its grey hide scarred with old landslides. Ella always felt it watching her: in the morning when she woke up and it was cast in shadow; in the afternoon as she walked home from the school bus; as she rode down to the lake, feeling its eyes resting on her shoulders; and in the grimmelings, when it grew black and silent, draining all the light from the indigo evening sky. At night she couldn’t see it, except for its outline against the swipe of stars in the sky, but on clouded nights, when the stars were swallowed in the grey, she knew it was there, could feel it pressing down onto the earth.

Ella’s world is Aotearoa but Grizzly’s past is Scotland, and the past preoccupies this book. That doesn’t mean the impact of colonisation on the whenua is ignored, however. ‘Ach, this country,’ Grizzly laments. ‘We’ve ruined it in so many ways. Cleared all that forest, destroyed all those native birds and plants just so we can make it look like home. Putting dairy farms where they have no business, destroying the land and the beautiful waterways’. Ella reveals that her grandmother ‘fell out with the town over a conservation issue’: the missing boy’s father wanted to ‘install a huge dairy farm right next door’ with its ‘monstrous machines’ and plans to ‘flatten the side of the Ben’. The success of Grizzly’s public protests meant ‘the fallout for the family had been severe. All these years later, they still had few friends in the Basin’.

Loss and the lost emerge as recurring themes throughout, as well as guilt and responsibility. Josh’s disappearance makes Ella think of her own father.

People talked about how sad it was that Ella and Fiona had lost their father. Lost. As in misplaced. How do you misplace something as big as a father? … Saying they had lost him made it sound as though it was their fault. It made Ella realise, more than ever, how words matter. Choose them carefully. Maybe Dad was misplaced, that was all, although it wasn’t through her and her sister’s carelessness.

Darkness and loss create an eerie atmosphere. The collection of women who make up Ella’s family are more than capable of defeating every foe. But the fight to save their lives and livelihood, and to locate the missing, tests them to the limit. Every battle leaves scars, and as the book sweeps to a satisfying but bittersweet conclusion, the reader must understand that when things are found, others must be lost.

Ella must summon all the strength she has to tackle the mysterious waterhorse that appears from the depths of the dark lake below her home, and restore her world to rights. She is the best sort of heroine, a down-to-earth girl with spirit and bravery that she seldom acknowledges. Plenty of young readers will be envious of Ella’s skills with horses, particularly with her own mysterious pony, Magpie. Small Fiona, too, is given her own voice, and knows her own mind. When Ella asks her sister ‘where’s your sense of adventure, Fifi?’, Fiona replies, ‘Packed its bags and gone to have adventures without me’.

King weaves together contemporary Aotearoa, the drawings of a Scottish heritage and mythology, a generous dollop of the fantastical and the terrifying impact of disappearances in this gripping and original novel. Children will revel in the imaginative twists and turns, discover words, and explore vivid worlds that feel both ancient and fresh.

The Grimmelings

by Rachael King

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 9781991006646

Published: February 2024

Format: Paperback, 320 pages

Erica Stretton

Erica Stretton is the co-ordinator of Aotearoa’s National Poetry Day. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. Her work has been published in Headland, Mayhem, Flash Frontier, takahē, and others.