The Last Witchfinder Hardcover – Mar 2006
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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.)
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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.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
Also, I found the literary device of having a book narrate a book as annoying and gimicky. This struck me as a ploy that a new writer would try to make their book "different" James Morrow's writing skills don't need to be packaged this way to hold a reader's attention. I found that the sections where the book was "talking" directly to the reader to be distracting, which dropped my rating of the book by another star.
The writing style, language, and attention to detail are all good. The level of writing is more intelligent than the average novel published today. I grew up in Philadelphia & found all of the local references interesting & fun (and accurate).
If you like historical fiction and books that make you think, you'll probably enjoy this one, but maybe not love it. If nothing else it can add somevariety to your reading diet.