Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

James Morrow’s The Last Witchfinder

This is one of the strangest books I have ever read. I can’t even claim to have picked it up on any recommendation – I was on my way to grab a cup of coffee when my eye fell on the book. I don’t know why. Anything having to do with witchcraft is repugnant to me. And yet . . . my eye fell on it. I picked it up. I read the back cover – the write-up wasn’t that great. And yet, I bought the book.

It is a very weird book. It is written from the point of view of another book, Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, and starts off in the late 1600’s, as the Newton’s book falls in love with the main character of Morrow’s Witchfinder, Jennet Stearne.

As the book begins, you are reminded of sitting with a friend who talks too much. The book chats on and on, goes on detours, tells you too much about people you don’t even care to know, but somehow . . . you like this friend anyway, and tolorate the annoyance because somehow you come away better for knowing this person/this book.

And I really, really liked the main heroine, who is only 11 when we meet her, living in England, and studying with her aunt Isobel, who does all kinds of cool scientific experiments to demostrate principles from Newton’s books, using prisms and microscopes and calculations, and it all sounds very dull, but somehow – it isn’t. Jennet and Isobel are so irrepressably intelligent! and funny! and down to earth!

But there is a viper in all this merriment, and the viper is Jennet’s father, a witchfinder, who, when his sister-in-law, Isobel, is accused of witchcraft, proves the charges against her.

How do you prove a charge of witchcraft?

The signs, according to Jennet’s father were very clear. A witch caused bad things to happen, like your best rooster dies after you have cheated the witch, or your wife miscarries, or your crop fails. A witch had a “familiar spirit” around, like a cat. (You can see how that might make me very nervous.) A witch had a blemish, a mark of Satan, somewhere on her body, that doesn’t bleed when you stick a needle into it. A witch, when thrown into the water, will sink, not float. They had special equipment for testing for witches. Most people – a very few accused were men – failed the test.

Thousands of people, primarily women, failed the test throughout the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. Entire villages near Trier in Germany were killed for the accusation of practicing witchcraft. Women were burned at the stake in France by the hundreds. Women who acted as midwives, or used herbal medicines were particularly vulnerable to the accusation of witchcraft, although men were also, from time to time, accused and convicted. And the accusers were often the jealous, the ignorant, the spiteful and at best – the misguided.

Jennet’s aunt Isobel failed the test. She failed, and she was burned at the stake. As she was lit afire, she shouts out to Jennet to create a “grande arguement”, a proof, using Newton’s Mathmatic Principles, that witchcraft / sorcery does not and cannot exist.

Jennet’s life is bigger than most people’s lives. Her family moves to the Americas – actually, her father is sent there because his profession as witchfinder is becoming an embarrassment in England. She is captured by and lives with American Indians for several years. She returns to “civilization” in time to experience the horrors of the Salem witch trials. She meets Benjamin Franklin, with whom she is shipwrecked on a Caribbean island. And those are just the bare bones!

The book is loaded with great characters, huge ideas, and visionary people, struggling to escape the tangles of the small minded religious fanatics, clinging to old and superstitious ways. And yet, the book is both scientific AND religious, coming to some grandly unifying propositions.

It sounds so dull, but it isn’t. There are lots of big words, but also a lot of humor. It is a book for people who loved Kurt Vonnegut, and who have read and relished John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces. It has a lot of the tongue-in-cheek theology of Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The characters are so alive, and so likable, and you will find yourself reading when you have other things to do, because you are eager for Jennet to succeed at her grand endeavor.

Read this book. You won’t be sorry. Available at for a mere $10.85 plus shipping. I paid $15.95 plus tax at B&N ;-(

April 17, 2007 Posted by | Books, Community, Cross Cultural, Family Issues, Living Conditions, Marriage, Mating Behavior, Poetry/Literature, Political Issues, Random Musings, Relationships, Satire, Spiritual, Women's Issues | 6 Comments

Horrifying Violence

My reaction to the violent and unnecessary deaths at Virginia Tech is literally visceral. It makes me feel like throwing up. I can barely wrap my mind around it.

In a place where young people should feel so safe, should be focused on the laws of physics, or learning critical thinking skills, or discussing Shakespeare, or learning lab procedures, they shouldn’t have to worry about a random, psychotic gunman. It occurs to me that he has a higher kill rate than any suicide bomber has attained. He successfully escaped after the first round and went on to trap and claim the lives of a huge number of victims.

Irrelevant questions come to mind – How do you shoot so many people with such lethal accuracy under chaotic conditions? What motivates a young person to kill so many, at random?

And I am reminded that our friends to the north in Iraq live with this same random, chaotic violence every day of their lives, not knowing if husbands will come home safely, if children will survive their day at school, if Mom will survive her trip to the market. Where do you find hope?

April 17, 2007 Posted by | Community, Counter-terrorism, Crime, Cross Cultural, Family Issues, Living Conditions, News, Social Issues, Spiritual | 7 Comments