Friday, June 18, 2010

The Daughters of Witching Hill - Mary Sharratt


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





21 comments:

Melody said...

I keep hearing rave reviews about this book so I'll definitely check it out!

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I really liked this one as well and I am glad that you enjoyed it. The level of superstition was amazing. How frightening to tink you could be jailed for just looking at someone the wrong way.

Serena said...

I haven't read this one, but it sounds fascinating. Thanks for the great review. I love books that deal with the witch trials, etc.

Beth F said...

I've had this on my wish list -- such a fascinating time period . . . scary.

diaryofaneccentric said...

I trip up on the Old English too so I don't usually read stuff like that, but this one sounds really good.

--Anna

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I love this time period as well...can't wait to read this. Blind conformity is something we must always beware of...or history has a tendency to repeat itself.

Trisha said...

What a fascinating subject! I have a few books on the Salem Witch Trials, but it's been a while since I read a book on the witch hunts. Thanks for the suggestion!

Zibilee said...

This seems to be a popular subject in fiction right now. I have read many reviews of this book and think it sounds wonderful, and a bit different from all the rest of the pack. The witch trials were a very frightening time in history, and I can't imagine how terrible it must have been to get caught in the middle of them. Great review, Sandy! I am going to be grabbing this book after reading your review. I know it's one that I am going to find very interesting!

The Bumbles said...

And to think that this stuff was still going on over in Salem many many years later. It is chilling. The intolerance of differences. Pack mentality is evil. I have spent some time in Salem and beyond all the touristy witch stuff are historical museums and memorials to those who were murdered in the name of Witch. A very chilling part of history. I think it's great there are novels like this to remind us not to forget the mistakes of our past.

Kathleen said...

I've got this one on my list already. I've always had a fascination with the Salem witch trials.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

It sounds good but too intense for me!

heidenkind said...

This book does sound like it would be really interesting, even if it doesn't sound like something I would normally enjoy.

Julie P. said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed this one. I absolutely loved it. You're right about the first few pages taking a little while to get used to.

Jenners said...

Glad your commenting paid off! What an interesting subject to examine.

ds said...

1612?! Wow. Totally chilling. I hadn't heard of this book. Mass hysteria, mob mentality, so scary no matter when it happens. Thanks for bringing this book onto the radar.

Carrie K. said...

Definitely one for the to-read list!

Alyce said...

Just about the time you said "this all sounds rather dire" that was about what I was thinking. You're a mind-reader. :) It does sound like it would be sad and frustrating to read about, but then all witch-hunt stories seem that way to me by their very nature.

kay - Infinite Shelf said...

Wow! This is the second high-praise review for this book that I read in a couple of days and it really makes me want to get it and read it. Hopefully I'll be able to enjoy the writing in "older english" style!

Iliana said...

Great review, Sandy. I do enjoy stories set during this time in history. There is just something about them right? Did you ever read Witch Girl? It's a YA novel but really good. You might enjoy it.

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

Lovely review and I'm so happy to see you enjoyed some historical fiction!

Alice Teh said...

Another awesome review for this book. I am definitely going to read this one day.