Friday, June 18, 2010
Although I don't have much knowledge about the witch hunts and trials that occurred in this country in the 1500's and 1600's, I think it is human nature to have an interest. Were they really witches? Did they have special powers? Or was it the biased, fearful pursuit of those that were only perceived as "different"? In modern-day "witch hunts" as they can be called, that pack mentality is a force bigger than the sum of its parts, and has the potential to destroy anything in its path. I could only imagine the hopelessness of the women that fell victim to it before there was any legal system in place to protect them.
Mary Sharratt has taken historical fact, specifically events from the 1612 Lancashire witch trials, and brought them to life. She has provided a voice to the men and women who were suspiciously regarding and eventually hung for their unsubstantiated crimes.
The story centers around a family of women. Bess Southerns, known as Demdike, has no husband and two children (one legitimate and physically handicapped and one illegitimate), and supports her family by begging for work and often near starvation. But when she suddenly acquires a "familiar", or a helpful spirit, she seems to suddenly possess a gift of healing and charming, and life becomes much more comfortable. She teaches the skill to her daughter, who eventually rejects it for fear of its consequences, and a friend, who begins to use the skill to get even with her enemies.
An almost hysterical paranoia seems to grip the townsfolk. If a shouting match breaks out and threats are exchanged, and one of the involved parties subsequently gets sick or has a stroke, aha! Witchcraft! They were cursed! At the same time, there is also an atmosphere of suspicion of any religion besides the one endorsed by the current monarchy. Therefore, Catholics were condemned for their prayers, rituals and beliefs, and were persecuted and hung. In the case of Demdike and her family, many of their incantations were simply old Catholic prayers that were passed off as witchcraft. I found this fact to be chilling.
I struggled with the first few dozen pages of this novel because of the prose, which is in the form of an older-style English. (I'm sure there is a term for it, but I don't know what it is.) But once I got rolling, I had no issues. I was immediately swept up in the tragedy of this poor unfortunate family who, it seems, was doomed from the beginning. The power of superstition and suspicion was terrifying to witness...a unstoppable force that not only victimized Demdike and her family, but friends that were only guilty by association. The final days of their lives (fates I am sure would come as no surprise to any of us) were almost unbearable to experience.
If all of this sounds a little dire, you'd be correct. But at the hands of Sharratt's creativity and delightful story-telling, a piece of history has been re-animated and converted to a page-turner of a book. One that enlightens and entertains.
I would like to thank Mary Sharratt and Diane Saarinen for noticing all of my chatty comments on other blogs reviewing this book, and sending me a review copy so I could experience it for myself!
4.5 out of 5 stars