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Book Review: Manufactured Witches by Michelle Rene

Sixteen-year-old Nat is a boxcar kid. Since losing his grandmother and family home to the ravages of the Dust Bowl, he has been on his own, hopping trains across Texas in search of a place for himself amid so much loss. Outside of Amarillo, Nat feels a peculiar sensation, a tug from destiny, that pulls him toward the small town of Tanglewood. However, instead of finding a job and some much-needed food, he discovers Polly Jones, a teenager like himself, chained to a post with a sign above her reading, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch.” Nat can’t bring himself to abandon her to the small-minded, fearful townsfolk and immediately becomes her protector until the arrival of Camille Renoir Lavendou, a local woman who operates Miss Camille’s Home for Wayward Children. No one dares stop Camille from releasing Polly and taking both teens with her because Camille is reputed to be in the “witchin’ business” herself. Nat’s excitement at the prospect of food and a place to stay quickly turns to disbelief and wariness when he steps inside Camille’s sanctuary. What he thought was a ploy on Camille’s part to keep the nosey townsfolk at bay doesn’t seem to be a trick at all when he sees Nan, an ancient, glove-wearing woman who paints the ghosts who visit her; Jacob, a clairvoyant, non-verbal child who uses a chess board to plot different realities; Crow, an ageless boy who transforms into a bird at will; and Buck, a pompous taxidermied deer with very high standards. When Polly, too, begins to exhibit extraordinary abilities, Nat begins to feel like an outsider. Despite his limitations, Nat’s intense loyalty quickly leads him into a much more dangerous situation, where his very life may lay in the balance. 

For lovers of the paranormal, this novel will be a special treat! Miss Camille’s Home for Wayward Children is a delight in every room. From books that magically fill for the specific reader to rooms with waterfalls and koi ponds, this realm of possibilities will leave the reader clambering for more and wanting to explore right along with Nat. The delight of discovery and fantastic description within the novel will make readers feel like a kid again, but while the surface of the plot is innocent and childlike, the theme beneath will satisfy the adult need for real substance.

Nat’s story is one of belonging. Throughout his journey, he has the innate, human need for acceptance and home, not just a physical place to lay his head, but the real need for family and kinship. The Dust Bowl setting plays such an intricate role in this theme because so many Americans were searching for what nature and man took from them, their place in the universe. Nat’s story, though fictional, was played out in real-time for millions of people. He has lost everything, his family, his home, his identity. His search and subsequent finding of his place leads to a finding of himself. Though he often feels like he doesn’t belong anywhere–not the boxcar, tramp world, nor Camille’s menagerie of unique people–he comes to see exactly who he is and of what he is capable. Although facing the potential of great danger, Camille, an African American, creates a home for any and all. She is warned multiple times that she cannot take in white children. Her love and that of all her “children” is colorblind. Her home is a haven and a place to discover their true identity. Acceptance takes centerstage in this novel and leaves the reader wrapped in a cozy hug of belonging.

Another major idea within the novel is defending those you love. Nat is the proverbial knight in shining armor. In fact, Nat’s moniker of “Galahad” (given to him by Camille) fits perfectly. Nat defends the weak though he himself is seen by most as a candidate for this category. He immediately jumps to Polly’s aid and continues that behavior throughout the story. Once he is taken in by Camille, he stalwartly defends both her and the other occupants of the house with his very life. He is a true champion, and though he seems to have no supernatural abilities, his courage is more than enough to make him extraordinary.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.