Monica Furlong’s Wise Child was the first time I ever saw a mother that I wanted to be. I was ten or eleven the first time I read it, and I didn’t think about mothers much beyond the fact that they were just sort of there—often harried, overworked, and tired, but useful if you needed a meal or a hug. Although I had a vague sense at the time that I wanted to have kids one day, none of my concrete experiences of what motherhood looked like made it seem all that appealing. Even in books, mothers were mostly just background noise; fathers were at least allowed to be funny or have quirky hobbies, but mothers rarely seemed to have inner lives. Furlong’s Juniper, an independent-minded woman with supernatural healing skills living in a dream cottage full of magic, was different.
The term “voracious reader” is clichéd, but it’s the most accurate one to describe what I was like as a kid. I had a bottomless appetite when it came to reading materials, by which I mean that if I didn’t have a book nearby I would resort to the backs of cereal boxes or the weird ads in the yellow pages. I also read literally all the time: at breakfast in the morning, on the school bus, under my desk instead of listening to the math lesson, in the bath. I once got in trouble during gym class for sneaking a book into the outfield during baseball (I’d hidden it under my shirt when we were changing). It wasn’t just that I loved the stories (although I did), but also that my brain craved that specific stimulation, and without its constant input I felt tortuously bored. It was a lonely way to be, not because I was teased for my reading or anything—I had plenty of friends, and I was so cavalier about my obsession that I don’t think it occurred to them to make fun of it—but because I never had anyone to talk to about the fictional worlds that felt at least half real.
I didn’t know anyone who read like I did, least of all my own mother—she had some Danielle Steele books lying around, and at least one installment of the Outlander series, but I’m not sure that I ever actually saw her sit down and crack any of them. Sometimes when she saw me sprawled out on the couch with a book she’d say, “I used to be a reader before I had kids, but now I don’t have the time.” The comment didn’t have any particular layers of meaning to it—other than I should have been helping out more around the house, probably—but I saw dark undercurrents in it: a hint that motherhood thwarted intellectual pursuits, and a threat that if I ever became a mother, I, too, would have to stop reading.
I didn’t have anyone around me to whom I could recommend Wise Child and its prequel Juniper, even though I desperately wanted to talk about them. When my middle sister was old enough to read them, I bought her a copy of each, and she loved them as much as I did. But other than her, I didn’t meet anyone else who had even heard of them until I was an adult, at which point I met a whole bunch of other people—mostly women—who had read and loved those books. They became a sort of password, a shorthand for seeing that someone else had been the kind of kid you’d been: bookish, witchy, often wanting something that you couldn’t quite put into words. I get a quiet thrill every time I meet another Wise Child reader, like I’m meeting members of an extended ersatz family. When I had my own kid, one of the things I wanted most was to shape him into that particular kind of weirdo, too—or, at least, provide the environment in which that kind of weirdo would thrive. I just sort of assumed that any child of mine would inherit this thing that seemed so essentially a part of me that I couldn’t imagine not passing it on.
The hero of Wise Child is a nine year old girl named Margit, although that name is used only once in the book. The rest of the time she’s referred to by her nickname, though as she explains, “Wise Child” is not exactly meant as a compliment—in her language, it’s a term used for children who “used long words, as I often did, or who had big eyes, or who seemed somehow old beyond their years.” Wise Child, who lives on a remote Scottish island in some nebulous Medieval era, finds herself suddenly homeless after the death of her grandmother, with whom she’d been living; both her parents are still alive, but her glamorous mother has run off to live a life of luxury on the mainland, and her father is a sea captain off on some voyage. With nowhere else to go, Wise Child winds up living with Juniper, a mysterious woman who lives in a house on a nearby hill and is widely regarded as a witch. The village priest especially seems to fear and dislike her.
As it turns out, Juniper is a witch, although she says that’s a vulgar term—instead, she calls herself a doran (the italics are Furlong’s), which she describes to Wise Child as being someone who has found a way of perceiving “the pattern” and as a consequence “lives in the rhythm.” The rest of the book is more or less Juniper teaching Wise Child how to be a doran, punctuated by run-ins with Wise Child’s mother, who is up to no good, and the village priest, who thinks Juniper is in league with the devil. Although parts of Wise Child’s journey to becoming a doran involve magic and spells and thrilling rituals, most of it is more prosaic: memorizing herblore, learning Latin, trekking through the countryside to gather ingredients for the healing ointments and poultices they make. But somehow the descriptions of those day to day chores interested me just as much as the chapters about flying on a broom. I loved all of it; it was the kind of book that made me want to step into it and live inside its story. I wanted Juniper’s house with its hearth and its garden and its stone dairy. I wanted her life. I also wanted Wise Child’s life, and by extension the attention and care she received from her guardian and mentor.
Reading Wise Child for the first time made me feel the way I knew I was supposed to feel in church—that sensation of goosebumps mixed with something unlocking inside out and expanding outwards and outwards and outwards. It’s a moment of touching the infinite unknowable, I guess, or a moment when you know that magic or God or whatever is real. Given all of that, maybe it’s not surprising that Monica Furlong devoted most of her life to religious writing, much of it, like Juniper herself, both subversive and progressive. She was particularly interested in the ordination of women in the Church of England, a context in which Wise Child makes perfect sense, since it’s a fantasy about a quasi-religious order in which women are autonomous and powerful spiritual teachers. It’s also a book about religious men who react violently to women who challenge the status quo, and it’s a book about motherhood, or at the very least a book that’s deeply concerned with mothers, biological and otherwise.
Juniper was the first mother-figure I saw who genuinely seemed to love every part of parenting, who approached it as an interesting and interactive project, who felt like she got as much out of it as she put into it. She also had a real life outside of taking care of Wise Child, with friends, travel, interests, and, of course, plenty of time for reading. I loved the way she took Wise Child seriously, listening to feedback and admitting when she was wrong; I still remember the sense of injustice I had as a kid about grownups not understanding that I was a fully-formed person with opinions and feelings of my own. But Juniper’s softness didn’t make her a pushover and, even though respectfully listened to Wise Child’s complaints about her chores, she never let her get out of doing them.
Juniper wasn’t just the kind of mother I aspired to be—she was first the kind of mother I wanted to have. Not exactly in a parenting sense—my own mother was and continues to be wonderful—but almost in a religious sense. I longed for someone who could induct me into the great mysteries of life, who could make me feel a sense of sustained awe about the world, who could teach me to “live in the rhythm” the way Juniper did. I suspect that this was what Furlong had wanted throughout her life too: some kind of spiritual foremother who could model the divine feminine for her. (She even called the goddess Juniper worships “the Mother.”) Wise Child was my introduction to the idea that faith doesn’t have to be prescriptive or dry, that it can be full of that dizzy, expansive joy that I sometimes felt flashes of but could never hold onto for very long. That catch-your-breath goosebumps that I would, later, associate with falling in love.
My nine-year-old son and I have been reading Wise Child at bedtime for the past few weeks. We make a whole ritual out of it, putting a log in the fireplace and getting our pajamas on and generally letting Furlong’s words and the flickering snap of the fire transport us back to Medieval Britain. I’ve been wanting to read this book to him for ages now, but I’ve held off, partly out of selfish fear: what if he doesn’t like it? What if he just doesn’t care? It felt oddly vulnerable to offer this piece of myself up for his judgment.
There is a part towards the end of the book when Wise Child tells Juniper that she is done chasing her biological mother’s love, and that she wants Juniper to be her new mother. I was surprised when my son laughed out loud, saying “that’s not how it works, you can’t choose your mother.” We argued back and forth about the idea of chosen family, but I understand to a certain extent what he means: at nine years old, he doesn’t get to choose much about his life.
But while he might not have chosen me, I chose him, or an idea of him, when I decided to have a kid. Because of that, I gamely worry that I am not living up to that choice, that I am not a good enough mother, that I am not Juniper-caliber. Sometimes motherhood seems both too big and too small. I will never be enough to fill this outsized role, but I also feel confined by it, a sensation that’s been exponentially heightened this year when my son and I have literally been confined together for ten months. I have no problem extending grace to other mothers, quick with a glib “they’re only human” and “we’re all just doing our best,” but there are moments when I know I am not doing my best. Some days—more days than I would like to admit—I am just trying to make it until bedtime.
Then again, life is basically a string of bedtimes, some more anxiously anticipated than others. What I mean by that is: you don’t really get to know the overarching narrative until later, if ever. Juniper takes things hour by hour, for the most part, and then season by season. When Wise Child first comes to live at her house, Juniper’s focus is first on caring for her body: feeding her, washing her hair, giving her a warm nest to sleep in and a chair by the fire. It’s not until Wise Child is physically stronger—like The Secret Garden, one of the pleasures of this book is that it equates eating and gaining weight with happiness—that she can be nurtured in other ways
And even though my son believes that you only get one mother in life, the reality is that his life is full of mothers who fill in where I fall short—his aunts, his grandmothers, the summer camp director whose every word he hangs on, the handful of teachers who have seen him for the quirky little joy he is, a constellation of mothers of all genders. If motherhood seems too big sometimes, that’s probably because our modern be-all-end-all conception of what a mother should be describes a role that takes multiple people to fill.
My son likes Wise Child well enough, I think; he reacts, he asks questions, he offers analysis. I don’t know if he’ll ever be the bookish weirdo—he likes being read to, but he’s still not too keen on independent reading—but that’s all right. I didn’t turn out to be much like my mother, but the parts of her that I see in myself are gifts that I appreciate very much. What matters most is that she was present, that she made sure I was clean and fed and had a warm place to sleep and outlets for my interests, even if they were not hers. She was the one who took me to the library and helped me check out stacks of books, who paid off the fines I racked up as my Christmas and birthday presents, who scoured my grandparents’ basement to find the paperbacks she’d loved as a kid. And really, if she didn’t have time to read, whose fault was that? It belongs at least partly to the kid who spent so much time sprawled on the couch with a beat-up Judy Blume instead of doing the bare minimum to help out around the house.
My mother gave me the gift of accessing the enchantment of books; I hope that I help my son find a gateway to a similar feeling, through whatever medium. Even if books aren’t what takes him there, the moments when we read together are still a communion of sorts. We come together and share in this moment, and then we separate. It’s a pattern that will only grow broader as he gets older; the separations will be wider, punctuated by, hopefully, moments of the same old wonder of joining. Maybe that’s living the rhythm, or at least a part of it. Maybe it’s as easy as that.
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