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.)
"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.
Reading Group Guide
1. It's easy to see why Jennet Stearne calls her campaign against the 1604 Parliamentary Witchcraft Act a "quest." If it succeeds, her mission will have enormous social ramifications. But must a "quest" always be so lofty? Did you ever undertake a personal project that also felt like a quest?
2. Walter Stearne, the self-appointed "Witchfinder-General" who dominates the first third of the novel, systematically detects Satanists using such "proofs" as "swimming the witch" and pricking her supposed Devil's mark. In performing these tests, is Walter practicing a kind of science? How do Walter's "proofs" differ from the experiments with light and acceleration that Jennet and Aunt Isobel perform in chapter one?
3. In the late 1750s the playwright Oliver Goldsmith remarked that he "who would court a lady must be capable of discussing Newton and Locke." Goldsmith meant that, for his generation and those immediately before it, women no less than men took a keen interest in "natural philosophy." Does this same situation hold today? Does an intelligent man assume that his female friends will want to discuss scientific and philosophical matters?
4. The author periodically interrupts the narrative flow with commentary by a conscious, immortal, opinionated book: Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica. How does the Principia's commentary help us grasp the fuller implications of Jennet's adventures? Do the book's remarks sometimes seem biased or self-serving?
5. During her life Jennet acquires five lovers: Okommaka, Tobias Crompton, Benjamin Franklin, Pussough, and -- unbeknownst to herself -- the Principia narrator. Which of these characters understands our heroine best? Could Jennet have found long-term happiness in any of these relationships?
6. Upon her deliverance from the Nimacooks by Tobias Crompton, Jennet happily plights her troth to him, knowing that this union will enable her to continue the quest. How do you feel about Jennet's "marriage of convenience"? Did she have any alternatives?
7. After Jennet's first argumentum grande is rejected by Parliament, she resolves to write a superior sequel, even though her husband worries that "in constructing this second and more elaborate treatise, you will grievously neglect our daughter." Should Jennet have taken Tobias's fears more seriously, postponing her project until Rachel became self-sufficient? Is Tobias holding Jennet to a standard of parental self-sacrifice that men have normally been free to ignore?
8. In the second half of the novel we witness Jennet's brother, the "last witchfinder" of the title, executing people for supposed heresy. What is the root of Dunstan's cruelty? Is he innately evil? Or is the Principia narrator correct when he asserts, in chapter three, "You must remain mindful, however, that the true villains of my story are not depraved persons but psychotic theologies"?
9. Marooned on a Caribbean island, Jennet finally discovers the "demon disproof" she has sought all her life. Explaining her argumentum grande to Benjamin Franklin, she notes that "but for my years as a savage Indian, I would ne'er have hit upon this proposition." What role did Jennet's Nimacook past play in her conclusion that the world is holistic and "alive"?
10. At one level The Last Witchfinder is about the historical clash between religion and science. But must faith and reason necessarily conflict? Does Jennet lay the groundwork for a reconciliation when, pleading her case before the Philadelphia witch court, she asserts that "God hath gifted His creatures with two great books, one called Scripture, the other Nature"?
11. For Jennet it seems to go without saying that she must sign her treatises "J. S. Crompton," rather than using her full name and thus revealing her sex. At some point in her quest should she have disclosed her gender to the world?
12. Throughout The Last Witchfinder the author uses historical figures to personify the Age of Reason -- Franklin, Newton, Hooke, Montesquieu -- all of them presented as wild and quixotic characters. Does Morrow succeed in his apparent ambition to dramatize the human side of science? Would you join him in questioning the common dichotomy between intellect and passion?
13. Perhaps you've attended a revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, or maybe you've seen the 1997 film adaptation starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. Whereas Miller sees the Salem Witch Trials as foreshadowing the McCarthy era, with ruthless people exploiting a transient hysteria to advance their own interests, Morrow evidently interprets the Salem tragedy as one more battle in a protracted war between Renaissance theology and scientific rationality. Which understanding of the 1692 trials do you find more compelling?
14. The Last Witchfinder contains an epilogue in which contemporary equivalents of Jennet and Aunt Isobel participate in a middle-school rocket club. Why do you think the author included this coda?
15. Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of the Principia narrator is his romantic feelings toward Jennet. Do you sometimes feel that books have lives of their own? Do you love your favorite books as friends?