As a child, Gretchen's twin sister was taken by a witch in the woods. Ever since, Gretchen and her brother, Ansel, have felt the long branches of the witch's forest threatening to make them disappear, too.
Years later, when their stepmother casts Gretchen and Ansel out, they find themselves in sleepy Live Oak, South Carolina. They're invited to stay with Sophia Kelly, a beautiful candy maker who molds sugary magic: coveted treats that create confidence, bravery, and passion.
Life seems idyllic and Gretchen and Ansel gradually forget their haunted past -- until Gretchen meets handsome local outcast Samuel. He tells her the witch isn't gone -- it's lurking in the forest, preying on girls every year after Live Oak's infamous chocolate festival, and looking to make Gretchen its next victim. Gretchen is determined to stop running and start fighting back. Yet the further she investigates the mystery of what the witch is and how it chooses its victims, the more she wonders who the real monster is.
Gretchen is certain of only one thing: a monster is coming, and it will never go away hungry.
If you're anything like me you've been drawn to Jackson Pearce's Sweetly and Sisters Red because of their fabulous cover art and intriguing contemporary YA retellings of beloved fairy tales. And maybe, like me you've been meaning to read them forever and you've just never found the time. Well thanks to the lovely folks at Hatchett UK I finally managed to get Sweetly off my one-day-someday list and onto my towering to-be-read pile instead.
Sweetly has a slow start. Gretchen and her brother Ansel have a complicated past, steeped in mystery they don't even fully admit too or understand. So it's hardly surprising when they end up in a small town also plagued by unpleasant mysteries and a complicated past and seem to fit right in. Pearce very masterfully sets up this strange set of coincidences and happenstance so that although it is all very odd, and decidedly unbelievable in a way, it works. If any two people can overlook a bizarre situation and turn a blind eye to the things that don't add up, it would inevitably be two people who were raised to do it from a young age.
She's also populated the town with a host of intriguing characters and rural quirks that make it seem like something out of Twin Peaks. Ms Judy, Samuels cat crazy and difficult elderly landlord, Miss Nikki/ Miss Zuelika the local mystic, tarot card reading psychic who likes to put on a finer show for the tourists than the regular town folk, and of course Samuel the outcast on a motorcyle who's bent on saving a town that wants nothing to do with him. Not to say anything of the chocolate shop that's mysteriously located in the middle of forest wayyyy out of town.
The real joy in the story for me though, was Gretchen's taking control of her fear and facing it. As she starts to question and fight back she becomes a much more empowered girl character than the usual YA girls. Yes there's a boy, but her survival doesn't depend on him, so much as they're working as a team to fight off the monsters. The scenes where Gretchen is learning to shoot and hunt were some of my favourites and I loved how Pearce had her constantly battling her fear and not just switching into an over night super fighter chick.
Dark and creepy, just as it was originally meant to be, Pearce has written a great retelling of a classic fairy tale for a whole new generation.
Sweetly, by Jackson Pearce
Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers, August 2011
My copy kindly provided by Uk publishers Hatchett UK.