“All the way home I thought about my friend Jennifer the witch. I also thought that I had gone out an ordinary girl and had come back a witch’s apprentice.”
Mallory’s back with all the details in this month’s Konigsburg Collective — the title’s a mouthful but the book’s an afternoon’s read: take advantage of this miserable cold front and spend a rainy hour curled up on the couch with Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, E.L. Konigsburg’s very first book and a Newbery Honor winner (she lost to herself that year). xx E.
It’s Halloween and Elizabeth is dressed as a pilgrim. She meets Jennifer on her walk to school when she spots an oversized shoe on a bony foot hanging from a tree. Elizabeth is terribly lonely, she’s in the fifth grade, new in town and an only child. Her mother nudges her to befriend Cynthia, who lives in her same apartment building, which would be convenient and parent-pleasing but cannot be done because Elizabeth knows factually that Cynthia is mean and also two-faced. So it’s Halloween, and Elizabeth is new in town, friendless and dressed in an itchy pilgrim costume, and there’s Jennifer, also dressed up as a pilgrim but claiming wholeheartedly that she is in fact a witch. And somehow she knows Elizabeth’s name and knows that Cynthia is mean and also two-faced, and she (Jennifer) may write with a quill, for she has colonial-like penmanship. So there’s no question that Elizabeth must become an apprentice to Jennifer the witch. And there’s no issue with the consumption of raw eggs and onions and the saving of fingernails and snowballs for flying ointment: the great goal of adolescent witchery. But working with a witch, especially when she’s your only friend, can be a frustrating venture. “Some days I really didn’t like being her apprentice. But I was always a little bit worried that she would choose another apprentice.” Still Jennifer, being a witch and all, was capable of admirable and noble things, like exposing a Cynthia lie to Mrs. Stuyvestant without being a tattle tale, and understanding Macbeth, and casting successful tripping spells. The girls meet every Saturday at the library, perfecting their witchcraft The crux of their friendship appears when their pet frog Hilary Ezra is named as the ultimate ingredient for their flying ointment; a dilemma, undoubtedly, and their greatest test of friendship.
In true Konigsburg fashion, Elizabeth and Jennifer (like Claudia and Jamie and The Souls) though not always accordant, are passionately working toward a common goal. Jamie and Claudia had their mysterious statue, The Souls their academic bowl; for Elizabeth and Jennifer it is their flying ointment. And while the conjuring of their ointment leads to their biggest altercation followed by the sealing of their friendship, it is not the heart of the story. Ironically, the heart happens at Cynthia’s very pink birthday party. As part of Elizabeth’s promotion to journeyman witch she is restricted by a list of taboos, she cannot play musical chairs, or eat cake, or play pin the tail on the donkey, and at first she is miserable but then she makes a choice. “… I tried hard to accidentally forget the taboos. I tried to make a slight mistake that couldn’t possibly be my fault; but the harder I tried, the harder it was to forget that I was a journeyman witch … So I decided instead to enjoy being odd. And I did.”
I count Elizabeth the luckiest of girls to have had this epiphany in the fifth grade.
Konigsburg is a master at portraying the conflict of the pre-teen psyche. It is true that friendship can be messy when you’re 11, and loneliness at its deepest darkest in those years. But if you manage to figure out the tricky pursuit of acceptance while still maintaing your own sense of uniqueness, well you just won the coming-of-age lottery. And what’s exceptionally beautiful about Elizabeth’s newfound confidence is that she found it in Jennifer first — Not much unlike the interdependence of Claudia and Jamie, The Souls and Mrs. Olinski. Konigsburg again and again reminding us that through others we find the greatest parts of ourselves.
“Oh Jennifer,” I thought to myself, “how strong you are. Nerves of steel and the heart of a witch!”