Being a Witch, and Other Things I Didn’t Ask For by Sara Pascoe is about a foster child who discovers her powers as an “integrator”—commonly known as a witch—in present-day England.
When we meet Raya, 14, she’s in her new placement in the English countryside with her 11-year-old foster brother Jake and foster parent Angie.
“It was one of the nicest foster homes she’d ever been in. But she’d had more than enough by now. . . [she’d] had a bellyful of being in care.”
I was 14 when I entered care. Raya, on the other hand, is a veteran by this age, already fed up with the perpetual stream of ignorant caseworkers and insincere foster parents.
But the more I read, the more I saw similarities in our experiences.
Raya’s mother was diagnosed as schizophrenic and placed in an institution when Raya was around 4 or 5. Meanwhile, “No one knew who Raya’s dad was because her mum either didn’t know or wouldn’t say.”
Her mother lost custody and Raya went to live with her grandparents, but their death led to her placement in care.
Discovering Her Power
Raya AWOLs to South London, where she meets a kind male integrator named Pavel. Raya’s last social worker, Bryony, had also claimed to be an integrator, but Raya “thought it was a load of rubbish.”
All the same, she lets Pavel guide her to a café run by a brother and a sister who offer her an extra room, opportunity for work, and free meals.
Raya realizes there that she too has witch, or integrator, powers. She’s noticed her abilities to foresee the future and understand cats’ meows for a while, but she was afraid they were signs of schizophrenia.
Working at the café, “She’d know what (customers) wanted before they opened their mouth or the menu.” With the help of Pavel, she strengthens those powers, practicing them when it’s slow at the café.
The police, along with Bryony, walk into the café one day and show Raya’s picture to her new trio of friends, who had believed her when she said she was 16 and showed them a fake ID.
Being discovered as AWOL activates intense emotions in Raya, which trigger her powers, and she accidentally travels back in time with Oscar the integrator cat to Essex, England, in 1645.
It’s the time of the witch trials there, and witch hunter Matthew Hopkins (an actual historical figure) arrests Raya after she is blamed for the death of a dog.
The integrators back home, including social worker Bryony, conclude that Raya puts herself in harm’s way in part because of subconscious guilt about her foster brother Jake running away and getting badly hurt in an accident. After traveling back to 1645 to help Raya, Bryony is also arrested.
Forced to Betray Family
In prison, Raya is introduced to a gaggle of women, young and old, who have also been accused of witchcraft. It’s there that she meets Rebecca West, a girl around her own age, who is being forced to testify against her mother, Anne, and condemn her to death in exchange for her own freedom. (They are also real historical figures.)
“Was this really that much different than when she had to tell social services about all the crazy stuff her mother did?” Raya wonders to herself. “It felt like such a betrayal.”
Children in care must often testify against their parents so child services can build a case. Often, we feel guilty for our family’s involvement in the system, like it’s our fault.
By the skin of their teeth, Raya, Bryony, and Oscar the cat avoid being hanged for witchcraft. Raya, starving, calms her fears of imminent death by dreaming of kebabs, and accidentally transports them to historical Istanbul, Turkey, or “Constantinople” as Western Europeans called it then.
This was my favorite part of the book. I was transported with Raya and the gang to Istanbul by Pascoe’s descriptions.
“Stalls lined the cobbled street, stuffed with rows and piles of glorious things: colourful fabric; strings of glass lanterns hung like oversized gems…. Shopkeepers sat in front of their stalls, either on low stools or plush cushions…men, women and children, in billowing trousers, jewel-dotted dresses, embroidered coats, scarves laced with gold, and white turbaned heads like so many seabirds bobbing on the surface.”
Raya also ends up in danger in Istanbul, because she uses her integrator powers to see people’s futures in their coffee cups, and people are distrustful of her.
But she manages to bring everyone back to 21st-century London, including the family that housed her in Istanbul. She changes the course of time and causes a war to break out—making living there unthinkable for them.
Raya then goes back to her old placement in the countryside with Jake and Angie. Her abrasive nature has smoothed and she’s more thoughtful.
Raya ends up celebrating her 15th birthday at a table with the community she accepted and created for herself. She works with Jake and Angie to create a traditional Turkish meal to share with the friends she accidently brought back from another time.
Throughout the book, Pascoe captures the feelings of foster care in little things, like Raya ducking away from affectionate physical contact from adults. I’ve done that. Sometimes it’s reflex, and other times it’s to let the adult know, “I’m not cool with you like that.”
Sometimes physical affection, like a hug or a pat on the head, makes us uncomfortable because we’ve tired of temporary attachments.
I feel that Pascoe assigned Raya the particular powers she has, like reading people’s minds and time travel, because they resemble how foster kids adjust to trauma.
Being separated from your parents and being abused or neglected by the people you trust the most does make you more sensitive to others’ vibes. As a foster youth, when I was aware of the emotional state of the people around me, it was easier to be on top of new, possibly dangerous situations.
I developed this skill in my life prior to care to keep myself out of trouble, and stay out of unnecessary disputes with aggressive people. By becoming hyper aware of body language, subtle emotional changes, or responses in social interactions, I’m able to accurately assess the present moment and protect myself.
Noticing the subtle body language or the tone in someone’s voice isn’t quite the same as Raya’s ability to actually read people’s minds, or to transport anywhere in time. But it’s a good metaphor for how triggers can set off a traumatic memory or behavior.
Something else I find familiar is that Raya is always trying to escape—from the first page, where she’s planning to AWOL.
Children in care learn to embrace the unknown because everything is temporary. If we don’t like something, we tend to run. During high school, like Raya, I dreamed of a time I could be on my own—as far away from labels, caseworkers, and troubles as I could get. I looked up universities in distant countries and other states. Being away from everyone who knew me meant I’d be free of judgment.
I would recommend Being a Witch to other foster kids because Pascoe dramatizes with magic and adventure and history things we’ve all felt.