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.
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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 amazon.com for a mere $10.85 plus shipping. I paid $15.95 plus tax at B&N ;-(

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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 »

  1. It does sound like a weird book, and I am glad you have enjoyed it. However, for some reason it does not appeal to me which is, trust me, a very rare case when it comes to books.

    Comment by kinano | April 17, 2007 | Reply

  2. Sorry, Kinan, I know your lack of enthusiasm is due to my ambiguous review, and yet, I really enjoyed the book and found myself really caring about the main character. If it helps, there was a lot of non-graphic sex, too!

    Comment by intlxpatr | April 17, 2007 | Reply

  3. loool @ “If it helps, there was a lot of non-graphic sex, too!” 🙂

    It’s not your review trust me, you did a great job. The way I understand it, the book is a work of fiction and for some reason I have been absolutely not interested in works of fiction lately (The last 4 books I’ve read are all non-fiction).

    I guess I am losing my creative side 😦

    Comment by kinano | April 17, 2007 | Reply

  4. I am guessing it has less to do with losing your creative side than a focus on your personal life . . . (?) I’m just the opposite. Throw me a relationship problem and I retreat into fiction!

    Comment by intlxpatr | April 18, 2007 | Reply

  5. bring on the logorrheaic narrator, rich historical context and the non-graphic sex 🙂 ya khalti, please save this one for my next visit!

    Comment by adiamondinsunlight | April 18, 2007 | Reply

  6. Consider it saved, Little Diamond! I will put it back next to “Snake Hips” and hope you can find it next time you visit us in Kuwait.

    Comment by intlxpatr | April 18, 2007 | Reply


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