Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Little Wax Doll by Norah Lofts

Originally appeared in The Times of Northwest Indiana

Norah Lofts was one of an impressive cohort of English women novelists who seemed to reach their prolific prime in the middle of the twentieth century, and who remain delightful, intelligent escape reading today. Mary Stewart was another, along with Angela Thirkell, Miss Read, and of course Agatha Christie. They were born early enough to be able to grace their writing with real information from a late-Victorian schooling, and yet they lived and created through the huge social changes of the 1950s and 60s, and so noticed things like hippies and the sudden ubiquity of four-letter words. Norah Lofts in particular had a talent for thinking up great titles for her novels, which tended to the historical romance genre. Silver Nutmeg and White Hell of Pity were just two of a few dozen.

Unfortunately, The Little Wax Doll is not one of Lofts' better efforts. Perhaps the rather dull title is a clue. The book is set in eastern England in the late 1950s, and concerns a Miss Deborah Mayfield, who returns from twenty years as a missionary in Africa to take up a teaching post in the small and beautiful village of Walwyk. Strange things go on, or rather, the villagers behave strangely. A girl shows up at school with welts on her back, and then defends her grandmother when Miss Mayfield says she suspects the old lady of having administered the beating. A boy and girl who like each other are kept apart by the boy's parents, with no explanation given. A boy becomes sick, and his parents' reactions range from hysteria to cool indifference -- and Miss Mayfield wants to know why.

There are possibilities in this novel, but the trouble is that the plot depends on the narrator (that is, the author), the characters, and the reader all taking witchcraft seriously. Since the author is clearly not sure whether she does -- this is after all "nineteen fifty-nine, the modern age," as Miss Mayfield is made to say -- we are left following the adventures of a protagonist who may be fighting true, supernatural evil, or who may just be stuck in the boondocks with a lot of elderly farmers having parties, naked, in the woods.

Still, one has to give Lofts credit for slogging through and producing yet another professional, well-woven story, including what she probably meant to be a startlingly eerie ending. At best, Miss Mayfield's situation makes the reader think about what it might have been like to live in places or times when "witchcraft" was a real terror, not so much for "victims" of it as for victims of accusations of it. Norah Lofts liked to spice her novels with the witchery theme from time to time, but in The Little Wax Doll, witchery is not the spice but the whole meal. It is the more indigestible for it.

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