A Project Fairy Tale review:
Title: The Brixen Witch
Author: Stacy DeKeyser
Genre: Middle Grade
Date Published: 2012
Blurb: An enchanted coin. A witch’s curse. And rats, rats everywhere! What’s a boy to do? When Rudi Bauer accidentally takes a witch’s coin, he unleashes her curse. Accident or not, he knows he’s got to fix things, so he tries to return the coin, only to lose it on the witch’s magic mountain just as the snows come. Plagued all winter by terrible dreams, Rudi tries to find the coin again in the spring, but it has vanished—and a plague of rats has descended on his village. Then a stranger arrives and promises to rid the village of rats—for the price of the missing coin. Desperate to get rid of the rats, the villagers agree—but when they cannot pay, the stranger exacts a price too terrible for anyone to bear.
So what’s the Pied Piper connection?
Just like the original fairy tale, thousands of rats invade a small town in medieval Germany, forcing the mayor to take action. He sends for an expert rat-catcher by the name of Herbert Wenzel, a man known by his reputation. At this point, I was thinking, “Aha. The Pied Piper!” However, in an interesting twist, Wenzel turns out to be a completely honest, non-magical exterminator (and from what I’ve read, a ‘rat-catcher’ was actually a profession in the middle ages!). Although Wenzel asks for a large sum to get rid of the rats, the town pays him the full amount after he succeeds. So there’s no greed or reneging on their part.
Wenzel leaves with his money, but the rats return to Brixen a week later. Shortly afterward, a mysterious stranger appears, claiming he can get rid of the pesky rodents with his music. Now we’ve got a Pied Piper! But the Piper’s demands are so high that the townspeople have no hope of paying—unless Rudi can find the witch’s coin he lost earlier. When the townspeople fail to come up with the coin, the Piper does his usual routine and spirits the children away with his music.
In this version, the Piper isn’t an itinerant musician but a servant of the local witch, who lives in the mountain outside of Brixen. Although the townspeople blame her for the plague of rats, it’s actually the Piper’s doing, as part of his master plan to seize all the witch’s magic for himself.
How does this stack up as a retelling?
The Brixen Witch was a decent re-imagining of the story, but it lacked the darkness and tension I’ve come to expect from Pied Piper retellings. Having recently read Donna Jo Napoli’s Breath, with its seriously grim, ultra-realistic depiction of medieval German, DeKeyser’s white-washed version fell short in comparison. Although the setting of Brixen was nicely done, I wondered why the author didn’t just use Hamelin.
Since this book was obviously geared for a younger audience, I never believed Brixen’s children would come to any harm, even when the Piper lured them away. So much emphasis was placed on the Brixen witch that the Piper didn’t seem like a real threat until the end of the book. I did enjoy the section where Wenzel and Rudi worked together to capture the rats (using ferrets to chase them out from under the floorboards!).
[Spoiler alert] As far as retellings go, this one has ends happily. Although the Piper gets the children to follow him up to the mountain, Rudi and the townspeople are able to save them. The book didn’t stand out for me, but I’d still recommend it for grade-school kids who enjoy re-imagined fairy tales. There’s enough tension and excitement, mixed with fantasy and mystery, to grab a younger reader’s interest.