This post is a blast from the past ⇓
If it wasn’t for standardized testing, I might have missed The Mystery of the Witches’ Bridge by Barbee Oliver Carleton. It was November
1972 1973 and us fourth fifth graders at Nathanael Greene Elementary, Pawtucket, found ourselves subjected to a week of endless Scantron sheets and NO TALKING. There was one small bit of good news, however. We were told that once we completed each test segment, we would be allowed to read quietly at our desks until time for the next test. We should plan on six to eight segments a day for most of the week.
Up to that point, my reading had been almost exclusively what was required for school. I wasn’t opposed to reading — it just hadn’t made it onto my radar screen yet. So I dutifully went to the library and poked around to look for something not too boring. I chose The Mystery of the Witches Bridge pretty much at random. Mystery of Something sounded maybe cool. I guess. A witch might be neat, and the cover was creepy.
The first test had a thirty-minute time limit, and I finished in about half the time. After turning in my Scantron, I pulled out the book and started reading. Not long after, when the second test started, I found myself rushing to get done so I could get back to the story. Later that first day I realized the best way to maximize my reading time was to simply ignore the questions and fill in the Scantron ovals at random. I could complete a forty-five minute test in under five and get back to reading.
My teachers were amazed. Them: “You’re so fast! How do you do it?”
Me: (ignoring them, reading)
I can’t say as I was a shining example of the dutiful student, but I discovered something truly wonderful: not just the first chapter book I read for pleasure, but a book that would stick with me throughout my life and which remains one of my all time favorites. It’s a book that ultimately contributed to my desire to be a writer myself, and certainly influenced that kind of fiction that I seek to this day.
The Mystery of the Witches Bridge is the dark, yet stirring story of a young man caught up in a mystery stretching across three hundred years of his family’s history. Set in coastal New England, the plot centers around the boy Dan Pride who has come to live with his reclusive uncle at the ancient family home, Pride’s Point, after the death of his parents. The old house sits on an island in the midst of a fertile salt marsh and can be reached only by a long causeway, or over an old road that leads across the eponymous Witches Bridge.
Dan struggles with his grief and feelings of isolation, but he hopes he will find a new home with his uncle, Julian Pride. His hopes are quickly dashed. The old house is grim and forbidding, and his Uncle Julian aloof, haunted by bitter memories. He warns Dan to keep his place, to do as he’s told, and specifically to avoid the Bishops, a rival family Uncle Julian blames for the mysterious death of his own father—Dan’s grandfather—years before. Furthermore, the Prides are ostracized by the locals, who believe the ghost of Samuel Pride, founder of Pride’s Point, haunts the salt marsh and lures the unwary to their deaths whenever a fog rises. Old Samuel was falsely accused of witchcraft back in the early years of the Massachusetts colony, but his example retains power even in the present, as he kept Pride’s Point for his descendants only by standing mute in the face of prosecution and ultimately execution.
As Dan attempts to settle in to his new life, he discovers a few bright moments in the drear, including a friendship with a pair of siblings who live across the marsh. But he’s unable to get out from beneath the shadow of his family’s haunted past. The feud with the Bishops hovers like a spectre over him and his new friends. The Bishops were source of the original accusation against old Samuel Pride, and were subsequently connected, at least circumstantially, to the events surrounding the death of Dan’s grandfather. Ultimately, Dan must solve not only the mystery of his grandfather’s death but come to understand the choices of his long dead ancestor, the old witch himself, in order to save himself from the false accusations he faces, like his forebear, and make a place for himself at Pride’s Point.
It’s been over 35 years since I first read this marvelous book. I consider it to be brilliant, young adult noir—great characters, taut plot, sleep-interrupting suspense, and unexpected redemption yet with an enticing note of ambivalence and ambiguity. Today, I re-read my tattered, disintegrating copy every year or so. Several times I’ve had to order fresh copies, always used. The book is out-of-print, I’m sad to say, but fortunately enough copies are extant that I’ve always managed to land a copy that’s more or less intact. Recently, the best source has been Amazon Marketplace, where the average price is 89¢, or nine dollars with shipping and handling. More than worth it.