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The Last Witchfinder [Hardcover]

James Morrow
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

March 2 2006

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.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–England in the late 17th century is an exciting–if dangerous–home for Jennet Stearne, a teen whose family is a microcosm of the country's philosophical and religious conflicts. Though she is enthralled by Isaac Newton's theories and her progressive Aunt Isobel's scientific experiments, she also takes pride in her father, Walter, who is a highly regarded professional witch-hunter. Jennet's filial piety and belief system are overturned abruptly when blameless Isobel is burned at the stake because Walter labels her a witch. The girl vows to prevent other unjust executions by using science to prove witchcraft nonexistent. Her stubborn quest goes on for decades, leading her into wild adventures that include being captured by pirates, becoming an adoptive Native American, witnessing the Salem witch craze, and carrying on an affair with the young Ben Franklin. Jennet and her companions dash through an energetic narrative that re-creates the period believably, thanks to the author's admirable linguistic and historical research. While the protagonist is an appealing character, the real star is Newton's Principia Mathematica, whose amusing commentary provides a new twist to notions about the power and endurance of the printed word. This is a clever literary fantasy costumed as a traditional historical novel and a treat for fiction lovers.–Starr E. Smith, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very Complex Sept. 6 2008
By Toni Osborne TOP 100 REVIEWER
Jennet Stearne is left in the care her aunt Isobel Mowbray while her father the Witchfinder of Mercia and East Anglia roams the countryside in search of heretics. Isobel a Philosopher and a teacher tries to rationalise the art of Witchfinding but her inquiries soon attract attention. She is found guilty of witchcraft and is burned at the stake.

Witnessing the unjust and horrifying execution of her beloved aunt, Jennet devotes her life to overturning the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act. Jennet travels to America where she faces a series of adventures: such as witnessing the Salem witch trials, being abducted by Indians, starting a sensuous love affair with Benjamin Franklin, all before going back to England to meet Newton. On her return to America she is shipwrecked in the Caribbean and is exposed to the local pirates .Reaching her destination, she continues on her quest to disprove the existence of witchcraft.

This is a very complex novel firmly rooted in the facts of early 18th century history during the time of clashes between superstition (theology) and the scientific theories (Enlightenment Science).

All the characters are engaging especially Jennet although fictional she is portrayed with the same passionate involvement in the natural philosophy found in women of that era. She is a formidable heroine: brilliant, sharp-tongues and courageous.

The author gives a different dimension which is quite inventive and original when he introduces a technique to mirror persecution of witches to the present age. Although this style became clearer further on I found it to be a distraction and I lost interest and saw myself skimming through some paragraphs in search of those that would get back to the core of the story. I can't say that I enjoyed this novel but again I didn't dislike it, the book has a formidable main story.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  38 reviews
36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stylish and smart with a fast-moving story April 28 2006
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Shipwrecks, kidnappings, witch trials, illegitimate children, jars full of deformed creatures, humorous night-time encounters with Isaac Newton -- what's not to like? The Last Witchfinder covers thousands of miles in space and decades in time, deftly considers slavery, electricity, the spread of the Enlightenment and the battle between reason and science, and wraps it all up in a story that made me stay up late several nights in succession. I'd never read a word by Morrow before this book, and if the rest of his novels are like this one I'm going to read them all.
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Audacious and Most Brilliant (Warning: More Superlatives Will Follow) Jan. 20 2007
By Bart King - Published on
First of all, let may share my shock that there are not hundreds of Amazon reviews singing the praises of this delightful book to the heavens.

For anyone unfamiliar with James Morrow's wildly inventive mind, the opening chapters of THE LAST WITCHFINDER are an audacious revelation. Such brio! Such wit! And with his novel's frankly amazing conceit (it sounds ridiculous when synopsized, but basically, books can write books), I, jaded reader that I am, will confess to being a bit enraptured with this tome.

While no writer, Morrow included, could possibly have kept up the astounding level of quality of his opening, THE LAST WITCHFINDER still stands as a paragon of whimsical and instructive historical fiction. I have no interest in reprising its plot; in fact, I am still in a bit of a funk at the injustice of this book seemingly garnering so little attention.

I'm clutching at straws, but this may be a by-product of the book's cover (too drab?) or its seeming Puritanically-minded topic. Rest assured that not only is this novel top-notch literary entertainment, it is also a series of enlightening and amusing discussions on the nature of science, religion, democratic republics, culture, and, well, I think you get the idea.

And I can't recommend it any more highly than that. Thank you, James Morrow.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very good novel on many levels June 20 2006
By Jim Mann - Published on
James Morrow's The Last Witchfinder is many things at once. It's both a wonderfully researched and detailed historical novel and a great adventure story. It combines philosophy, theology, and science with Indian raids, shipwrecks, and pirates. It mixes extremely touching moments, some very sad moments, and moments of wit and humor. And it combines a narrative style fitting the time of the story - the late 1600s and early 1700s - with the postmodern conceit of having the book purport to be written by another book (complete with interludes of the book - Newton's Principia - addressing the audience).

Jennet Stearne is the daughter of a witchfinder in England. Her brother wants to follow in her father's footsteps, but she is of a more scientific bent. Under the tutelage of her aunt, she takes in an interest in all forms of natural philosophy - astronomy, physics, biology, and so on - and develops a good scientific mind. But when her aunt is accused and then condemned for witchcraft, Jennet dedicates her life to one thing: scientifically proving that the world isn't controlled by demons but rather by natural forces.

Jennet tries to recruit Isaac Newton, only to be tricked by Robert Hooke, masquerading as Newton. She decides to pursue her studies on her own, but things change when her father is sent to America. A series of adventures follow, in which Jennet witnesses the Salem Witch Trials (strengthening her resolve), is kidnapped by Indians and becomes part of tribe, escapes, meets Ben Franklin, eventually meets Newton himself, is shipwrecked, faces pirates, and is eventually herself tried for witchcraft. At the same time, her brother ascends to the post of witchfinder general for Massachusetts and marries the most hysterical accuser from the Salem trials. It's a remarkable sequence, combining as it does such great adventure with a serious examination of the issues involving faith, fundamentalism, and basic world views.

Morrow came to Pittsburgh a while back and read from The Last Witchfinder. When he did, he talked about how one of the things that got him thinking about the book was something he'd read (sorry, I don't remember the author) which stated that, if you look at the Renaissance, it's not best viewed as a time of a great explosion of reason but rather as a demon-obsessed time. Most everyone viewed the world as being strongly influenced by demons and spirits. Common natural phenomena were thought to be under the control of such invisible forces. Moreover, human beings were thought to traffic with Satan and be able to direct these demons. Someone's milk has gone sour? Well, he can remember when, two weeks earlier, he sold somewhat bad grain to the old woman up the road. She must be a witch who was getting back at him; how else explain the bad milk.

Witch finding was rationalized. The witchfineders used logic, arguing from a few lines in the bible, to build a huge rationale for what they were doing as well as a series of tests to prove that someone was a witch. The tests seem utterly nonsensical to us, but they were taken very seriously and more so considered completely rational by those who used them. The result was carnage over parts of Europe, with possibly several hundred thousand people killed over several centuries. (It was far worse in Central and Eastern Europe than it ever got in Western Europe or England.) Morrow does a good job of working these details into the novel.

The real heart of the novel though is the character of Jennet Stearne. She's a remarkably well drawn and interesting character (as well as the type of person many of us would like to know). She's smart, resourceful, brave, and never dull. I'm not sure if the comparison quite holds, but she in some ways can be viewed as a Heinlein "competent man" (in which case her aunt also fits in Heinleinesqe sort of way).

While Morrow clearly takes aim at the witchfinders and those who believe the world is under the control of demons, it's not the same sort of biting satire as in his novels like Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah. He skewers them in a much more straightforward way, simply by showing their world views and actions. At the same time, he makes it clear that it's not religion he's attacking - it's fanaticism. Many of the characters we side with in the book are religious - they're just not fanatic fundamentalists.

That's not to say that book doesn't have moments of humor. It has a number of quite amusing moments, ranging from Jennet's dealing with the book left to her by her aunt (a sex manual her aunt had written) to her and Ben's encounter with the pirates. (The head pirate, discovering them shipwrecked on an island and finding out that Ben is a printer, immediately says "I have this manuscript ...") And the scene where Jennet and Ben first make love is a classic.

As I noted earlier, Morrow structures the book as having been written by the Principia. I wasn't sure what to make of this at first - was it an addition or an unnecessary distraction. At first, I was leaning toward the latter, but as the novel progressed, it became clear that this technique was a novel way to allow both for info dumps and for some degree of editorializing without actually injecting this into the main novel. The Principia, for example, interrupts the novel to provide a couple of pages on the history of witch finding. So, in the end, I think these interruptions mostly worked (though a few could have been trimmed back a bit).

In the end, this is a fine novel that works well on a number of levels and should be of interest to those who like historical, those interested in the birth of the scientific worldview, or even those who just want a good adventure story, since it's all of these and more.
26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars terrific historical fiction March 17 2006
By Harriet Klausner - Published on
When curious Jennet Stearne was a preadolescent her beloved Aunt Isobel Mowbray encouraged scientific learning in her niece and nephew Dunstan; on the other hand Jennet's father General Walter Stearne was a zealous witchfinder, who severely applied the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act of 1604 to anyone behaving "peculiar" including inquisitive female scientists who happen to be his sister-in-law. When the thirteen years old Jennet watched the burning of her aunt at the stake as a witch, she knew better and vowed to see the ungodly injustice of that parliamentary act repealed.

However, Walter apparently crossed the line when he killed Isobel as she was gentry. Forced to leave England in disgrace, a still fanatical Walter takes his two children to Salem, Massachusetts to continue his life's work to the point that he ignores the abduction of Isabel by Algonquin Nimacook because he had trials to conduct. Boston postmaster Tobias Crompton eventually rescues Isobel and marries and divorces her. Her passion to end the witch trials hits a crescendo when her brother, a chip off the old block, prosecutes her as a witch; her defense provided by Baron de Montesquieu employs Newton's Principia Mathematica.

This terrific historical fiction novel brings to life the vast impact of the witchcraft trials in England and Massachusetts through the eyes of a heroine who chooses science over the mumbo jumbo of her father and brother. Isobel is courageous as she watches first hand the tragedy of her aunt and others, thrives even under Indian captivity, and ultimately risks her life to prove the nonsense of the witchfinders. James Morrow provides a strong tale of the late seventeenth century war between the enlightenment and the superstitious that seems so intelligently timed with politicians redesigning the same debate.

Harriet Klausner
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A witty and entertaining historical novel May 10 2006
By Mark B. Friedman - Published on
"The Last Witchfinder" is an ambitious and ultimately satisfying departure from Morrow's earlier "Towing Jehovah" series, usually classified as a science fiction or fantasy novel, but actually more of a classic farce. The whimsical alternative universe that the Reader is transported to this time is England and the colonies during the Salem witchcraft trials and their aftermath. The book is rich in details from this period, with Morrow's indomitable female heroine sharing adventures with historical figures such as Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin, who are both central figures in the main narrative.

The book jacket compares "The Last Witchfinder" favorably with Barth and Pynchon's forays into historical fiction. While not a totally apt characterization, it does seem likely that fans of "The Sot-weed Factor" and "Mason and Dixon" would enjoy this whimsical novel as well. "The Last Witchfinder" is tighter than those sprawling books, much more readily digested, and significantly less pretentious.

The one major literary pretention Morrow does succumb to is the conceit that the book you are reading is authored by Newton's "Principia Mathematica", apparently a sentient being of some sort. This overly-elaborate, post-modern, literary device is only semi-successful, but it does allow Morrow to spice the narrative with some interesting digressions along the way.

A better comparison may be to either "Little Big Man" or "The Cider House Rules", but I do think "The Last Witchfinder" suffers up against those two examplary novels. It lacks the bite of the former and the impact of the latter.

Overall, this is a book that should boost Morrow's status as a serious, literary novelist, without losing too many of the fans he acquired from his earlier books.
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