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The Last Witchfinder: A Novelby James Morrow
Synopses & Reviews
From a writer who has been lauded as "an original — stylistically ingenious, savagely funny, always unpre-dictable" (Philadelphia Inquirer) and "unerring" (San Diego Union-Tribune), who has been compared to Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Updike, a writer whose pen has given us a devastating lampoon of the nuclear-arms race and an audacious answer to the outrageous question "What if God had a daughter?" — from this writer, the critically acclaimed James Morrow, comes a novel of history, adventure, science, sex, satire, absurdity, and philosophy.
Jennet Stearne's father hangs witches for a living in Restoration England. But when this precocious child witnesses the horrifying death of her beloved Aunt Isobel, unjustly executed as a sorceress, she makes it her life's mission to bring down the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act. A self-educated "natural philosopher," Jennet is inspired in her quest by a single sentence in a cryptic letter from Isaac Newton: It so happens that in the Investigations leading first to my Conjectures concerning Light and later to my System of the World, I fell upon a pretty Proof that Wicked Spirits enjoy no essential Existence. Armed with nothing but the power of reason and her memory of Isobel's love, Jennet cannot rest until she has put the last witchfinder out of business.
Abrim with picaresque adventures — escapades that carry Jennet from King William's Britain to the fledgling American Colonies to an uncharted Caribbean island — our heroine's search for justice entangles her variously in the machinations of the Salem Witch Court, the customs of her Algonquin Indian captors, the designs of a West Indies pirate band, and the bedsheets of her brilliant lover, the young Ben Franklin. Finally, in a reckless and courageous ploy, Jennet arranges to go on trial herself for sorcery, the only way she can defeat the witchfinders now and forever. Rich in detail, rollicking in style, and endlessly engaging, The Last Witchfinder is a tour de force of historical fiction.
"Nine years in the making, Morrow's richly detailed, cerebral tale of rationality versus superstitious bigotry is set in late-17th-century London and colonial New England, a time when everyday actions were judged according to the rigid Parliamentary Witchcraft Act and suspect women were persecuted for alleged acts of sorcery. Inquisitive, 'kinetic' Jennet Stearne, daughter of militant Witchfinder Gen. Walter Stearne, witnesses this pursuit of 'Satanists' up close when her beloved maternal Aunt Isobel Mowbray, a philosopher and scientist, is put on trial and burned at the stake for her progressive ideas. Thirteen-year-old Jennet and her younger brother, Dunstan, immigrate with their now-infamous father to Massachusetts, where Walter (disgraced in England for executing his propertied sister-in-law) puts his 'witchfinding' expertise into savage overdrive at the Salem witch trials. Abducted in a raid, Jennet spends seven years captive to the Algonquin Nimacook, until she's freed by and married to Boston postmaster Tobias Crompton. Years later, after a divorce (!), she becomes smitten (and enlightened) by a young Benjamin Franklin. For a metafictional touch to this intrepid, impeccably researched epic (after Blameless in Abaddon), Newton's Principia Mathematica speaks intermittently, its jaunty historical and critical commentary knitted cleverly into the narrative. This tour-de-force of early America bears a buoyant humor to lighten its macabre load." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"James Morrow's novel about early American witchcraft pulls off so many dazzling feats of literary magic that in a different century he'd have been burned at the stake. Forget 'The Crucible,' Arthur Miller's dreary classic. Forget the repugnant kitsch of modern-day Salem. 'The Last Witchfinder' flies us back to that thrilling period when scientific rationalism was dropped into the great cauldron of... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) intellectual history, boiling with prejudice, tradition, piety and fear. The result is a fantastical story mixed so cunningly with real-life details that your vision of America's past may never awaken from Morrow's spell. His heroine is Jennet Stearne, born in England in 1677. Her widower father is a 'bald-headed, sweat-spangled practitioner of a vanishing trade.' He's a witchfinder; he tests people accused of demonology. As a young girl, Jennet looks forward to the day when she might accompany him on this sacred work: pricking moles and warts, dropping bound prisoners into water, listening to frightened old women recite the Lord's Prayer. The Bible provides the authority — 'Thou must not suffer a witch to live' — but winning a conviction is all a matter of careful, expert examination. To assist him, Jennet's beloved aunt searches for more reliable physical symptoms of necromancy. A wealthy woman with a keen interest in the latest discoveries, including a radical outlook called 'the scientific method,' she leads Jennet through a study of physics and biology, peering through her new microscope at the innards of captured familiars. But 'they hide their diabolism well,' she notes with rising frustration, unable to find any convincing proof of Satanism among all the dissected cats and toads brought to her from witches' dens. Unfortunately, before she can articulate her budding skepticism of the whole enterprise, she's accused of witchcraft, convicted by Jennet's father and burned alive in one of the novel's many blistering scenes. Jennet witnesses the entire ordeal and hears her aunt's defiant cries on the pyre. In that moment, she takes the title 'Lady Jennet, Hammer of Witchfinders,' denounces her father and dedicates her life to proving that no such thing as witchcraft exists. What follows over the next 400 pages is the story of her endlessly exciting quest. When Jennet's father is sent to Massachusetts, the assignment feels more like exile, but those dark woods are full of savages, and at 'one guinea per detected Satanist,' he hopes to make a fortune. Indeed, he arrives in the early 1690s and is quickly engaged to assist the Rev. Parris with an infestation of malevolence in Salem, one of the many real events that Morrow cleverly laces through his story. Jennet's father finds most of the proceedings hysterical and unorthodox (though not for the reasons we do), but her brother falls in love with Abigail Williams, the instigator of that famous paranoid tragedy, and together they take over his father's work throughout New England. Jennet, meanwhile, continues collecting evidence, studying the latest scientific treatises and trying to compose an argumentum grande so lucid, so convincing, so illuminating that it can finally demolish the witchcraft laws that sent more than half a million people to their deaths in Europe. It's no easy task for a poor young woman alone in the world to take on the age's deepest fears, but she's an extraordinary blend of curiosity and passion. Morrow drives her through a gauntlet of adventures, from Indian attack to shipwreck, from desert island to jail, a grand picaresque tour of England and the American colonies. Along the way, she interacts with some of the 17th century's most illustrious characters. Her long-delayed meeting with Sir Isaac Newton reveals the English scientist as a basket case of preoccupations and jealousies. Baron de Montesquieu is dazzled by her beauty and intelligence, even as he works out ideas that will later form the basis of our Constitution. But the most marvelous encounter is her relationship with a horny young printer named Ben Franklin. By this time, Jennet is old enough to be his mother, but Franklin, you'll remember, had a thing for older women: 'They have more Knowledge of the World and ... they are so grateful!!' Morrow brings Franklin alive here in all his delightful wit and enthusiasm. Together Jennet and Ben plumb the mysteries of electricity (both in the lab and, hilariously, in the bedroom) and dedicate their lives to explaining the apparently occult actions of nature: Why do the geese get sick? Why does the milk curdle? Why are men sometimes impotent? Morrow shows that their challenge is not just to present new evidence, but to change what their frightened peers consider evidence, to fundamentally shift the basis of thought. Their efforts eventually provoke a spectacular confrontation with the old world view, a conflict that threatens not only Jennet's lifework but also her life. The most startling element of the novel, though, is its narrator — so strange that I almost hesitate to mention it for fear you'll think I'm bewitched. Newton's 'Principia' Mathematica tells this story of Jennet's life. It turns out that that seminal work of 'natural philosophy,' which formed the basis of classical mechanics, has a cheeky personality and an immortal consciousness wholly distinct from Newton. It's a weird act of personification that seems at first an intolerably cute bit of post-structural gamesmanship: 'May I speak candidly,' the narrator begins, 'one rational creature to another, myself a book and you a reader?' But Morrow carries this off with such humor and heart that it quickly sounds like the most natural thing in the world to imagine books writing other books and watching history move through ghastly fits and starts. Most important, Morrow uses this strange narrator to frame Jennet's struggle in terms of the long battle between rationalism and superstition that's still being played out today. The result is so enchanting that when I finished the novel, I sat for a moment wondering when I could visit Jennet's grave in Philadelphia. She's such an extraordinary character captured in the crucible of human progress that I can't imagine how we got here without her. Watch out for James Morrow: He's magic. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"This impeccably researched, highly ambitious novel...is a triumph of historical fiction." Booklist (Starred Review)
"[Mr. Morrow's] prodigious dedication pays off. Here are storytelling, showmanship and provocative book-club bait (try finding another recent novel that rivals this one for erudite talking points), all rolled into one inventive feat." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"When I finished the novel, I sat for a moment wondering when I could visit Jennet's grave in Philadelphia. She's such an extraordinary character captured in the crucible of human progress that I can't imagine how we got here without her. Watch out for James Morrow: He's magic." Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World
"[A] treat for history lovers....Morrow injects humor and detail, but to enjoy this novel, you need a real appetite for the history of science. It's a book to delight fans of writers such as John Barth and T. C. Boyle. Or even Jonathan Swift." USA Today
"Morrow's latest is commendably ambitious, but this intensely cerebral extravaganza doesn't really work; Jennet is more a talking head than a fully formed character, and Morrow's prose, cobwebbed with archaisms, is no help." Kirkus Reviews
"[A]n attractive heroine in an exceptionally engaging and piquantly thoughtful novel. Though similar to John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor in many respects, Witchfinder is warmer and more human. Strongly recommended." Library Journal
"For all its philosophical high jinks, literary pyrotechnics, expositions and asides, the wrapper of a story, which up to here has been so lively and amusing, suddenly sounds crinkly and thin....The picaresque is never very good with endings: it's the getting there that counts." Jason Goodwin, The New York Times Book Review
"For those who like the good, old-fashioned storytelling techniques of the 19th century (heavy on plot, festooned with lots of odd, memorable characters), The Last Witchfinder...may be just the ticket....Morrow is long overdue for a mainstream audience." Denver Post
"Grim and gorgeous, earthy and erudite as well." Seattle Times
"Morrow seamlessly weaves fantasy with science and historical fact in one of the best novels of the year." Rocky Mountain News
"A grand yarn about the clash of reason and superstition, set in a fascinating time." Neal Stephenson, author of The Baroque Cycle
Jennet Stearne's father hangs witches for a living, but when the young girl witnesses the horrifying death of her beloved Aunt Isobel, she makes it her life's mission to bring down the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act.
About the Author
James Morrow is the author of eight previous novels. He lives in State College, Pennsylvania, where he has spent the past seven years working on this book.
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