“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.
“Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success. Her parents were well to do and kept a ladies’ hat shop in the prosperous town of Market Chipping. True, her own mother died when Sophie was two years old and her sister Lettie was one year old, and their father married his youngest shop assistant, a pretty blonde girl called Fanny. Fanny shortly gave birth to the third sister, Martha.”
One of the topics of great interest in the town of Market Chipping was the Witch of the Waste. The Witch had “threatened the life of the King’s daughter” and the King had “commended his personal magician, Wizard Suliman, to go into the Waste and deal with the Witch.” The outcome of this was that the Wizard had not returned and the townspeople believed he had been killed by the Witch.
Shortly after the Wizard had disappeared, a tall black castle had appeared in the hills above Market Chipping. The castle had four tall, thin turrets and clouds of black smoke issued from those towers.
The townspeople believed the Witch was behind the presence of the castle, especially because the castle sometimes appeared on the moors to the northwest of the town, then it would be in the east above the rocks and then it would move closer to the town and sit in the heather just beyond the last farm to the north of the town. Sometimes they saw the castle actually moving and the black smoke would be pouring out of the tall turrets. The Mayor of Market Chipping was thinking about sending to the King for help.
When they found out that the castle did not belong to the Witch but to Wizard Howl they were even more frightened. Stories were spread about that Wizard Howl collected young girls and sucked their souls away from them just to amuse himself. All the young women in Market Chipping were warned not to go about town by themselves.
Then, disaster strikes the Hatter family. Just at the time when Sophie was about to finish up her schooling, her father died suddenly. He had gone into debt to send his daughters to the best schools so the shop itself was in debt and all the girls had to leave school. Fanny decided to keep Sophie as an apprentice but also had to send her sisters Lettie and Martha out to apprentice elsewhere. She sent Lettie to Cesari’s bakeshop and Martha to Annabel Fairfax who was a witch with an excellent reputation in the Folding Valley.
Sophie’s apprenticeship progresses rather well because she had considerable talent at decorating hats but she was lonely and taken advantage of somewhat by her stepmother who was seldom in the shop to help Sophie. She missed her sisters very much. When May Day came she finished up her work and determined to go to Cesari’s to see her sister. It was crowded in town and when a young man in “a fantastical blue and silver suit” approached her somewhat aggressively she tried to hide from him.
“It’s all right, you little grey mouse,” he said, laughing rather pityingly. “I only want to buy you a drink. Don’t look so scared.” He coaxes but she eventually gets away and rushes to the bakery to find Lettie.
A few days later, “the grandest customer she had ever seen sailed in, with a sable wrap drooping from her elbows and diamonds winking all over her dense black dress.” the lady was wearing a “wealthy hat” and was accompanied by a young man “pale and obviously upset” who “stared at Sophie with a kind of beseeching horror”.
The woman rejects all the hats Sophie shows her and says that Sophie is wasting her time. When Sophie defends her position things rapidly deteriorate and when she dares to suggest that the woman should not have bothered to come in the young man gasps and becomes more upset. The woman then identifies herself as the Witch of the Waste and puts a spell on Sophie which will change her life completely.
“Sophie got herself to the mirror, and found she had to hobble. The face in the mirror was quite calm…it was the face of a gaunt old woman, withered and brownish, surrounded by wispy white hair. Her own eyes, yellow and watery, stared out at her, looking rather tragic.”
She was warned not to tell anyone about the spell and she knew she could not stay and face Fanny so she packed a few things she thought would be useful and locked up and left. She decided she would write to her sisters eventually and knew also that she would have “to do” for the Witch of the Waste when she had the chance but for the time being she simply had to put some distance between herself and the town. “…it took her a while to notice that some of the grinding and puffing was not coming from herself at all. She looked up blurrily.
Wizard Howl’s castle was rumbling and bumping towards her across the moorland…black smoke was blowing up in clouds from behind its black battlements…She raised her stick and waved it imperiously at the castle.
“Stop!” she shreiked.
The castle obediently came to a rumbling, grinding halt about fifty feet uphill from her. Sophie felt rather gratified as she hobbled towards it.”
And so begins a wonderful adventure for all ages! Settle in and enjoy!