Sunday, February 13, 2011

Book Review - The Daughters of the Witching Hill

Well, you know it's been a while when you have to actually log in to Blogger to post a new entry! Good things are afoot people. I am getting transferred out of my crappy department to one where I will no longer be the bringer of sadness. Yes, a great move for me, since I have been dealing with intense stress and anger over being the American Dreamkiller. "Hi, I'm Sweet Lady, you have to pay 100 zillions of dollars by this time next week or your house will be sold at an auction and all your neighbors will see postings about it on your lawn and in the paper. Have a nice day!!"  I have had serious TMJ problems, like so bad that whatever is misaligned in my jaw is messing with the nerves in my neck and shoulders, leading to numbness in my left hand. I stopped sketching and painting. It was a bad scene.  It's not like I won't still be part of the dream killing tangentially, so that still bums me out, but I can't put effort into getting another job until I'm done with the dissertation. My constant refrain. Anyway, in two weeks, I'm moving my cube and enjoying the silence. No phone calls.

I thought I'd drop in on all of you and let you in on a review of a book I recently read. I got some Barnes and Noble gift certificates for the holidays and I have been too busy to use them. CRAZY, I know. But I realized I hadn't read a novel in a while, and I thought that maybe it was part of the reason I wasn't feeling much like myself (other than the job). So I set out to read something new. I had good luck with historical novels, and especially those steeped in real historical research, but with supernatural or paranormal elements. The Historian, Devil in the White City, and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane were recent favorites, so I tried to see who bought books similar to those on Amazon and B&N's website. It led me to Mary Sharratt's Daughters of the Witching Hill. Excellent choice!

It is based on the real Pendle Hill witch hunts of 1612 in Lancashire, England. Taken primarily from the very detailed and strange testimony of the trials recounted by a contemporary court clerk, it pieces together a magical and tragic (tragical, if you will) story of Elizabeth Southerns, a poor woman who lived in a tower on the outskirts of town and acted as a "cunning woman," someone who practiced folk magic. Sharratt uses social and political history as her background for the story, placing it in this interesting time when Catholicism was under attack by the last two royals. The mysticism and ritual of Catholicism was seen as particularly vile to James I, who had a thing about witches. He wrote Daemonologie, a text defining and denouncing witchcraft. It specifically encouraged witch hunts, and was focused on ousting. Here's an excerpt focusing on the kind of work witches do:

"I mean by such kind of charms as commonly daft wives use, for healing of forspoken [bewitched] goods, for preserving them from evil eyes, by knitting . . . sundry kinds of herbs to the hair or tails of the goods; by curing the worm, by stemming of blood, by healing of horse-crooks, . . . or doing of such like innumerable things by words, without applying anything meet to the part offended, as mediciners do."
The book itself is not so much about the hunts themselves (it gets there, and it's a realistic treatment of it), but more about the belief in magic and its uses, the daily lives of women, and the ways women sought power over their lives when they had virtually none. 

Elisabeth Southerns is poor. So poor that she must beg for food and does hard labor for little pay around town. She has a magical experience one day when she's confronted with a beautiful man, Tibb, who she knows isn't real, but who convinces her that he can predict the future and help her gain some measure of control over her life. He claims that his "Lady" sent him to watch over her. Tibb helps Elizabeth, known as Bess and later as "Old Demdike,"  learn the ways of cunning folk. Using herbs, poultices, and prayers to heal and protect, she manages to turn it into a way to make a living. And some crazy shit happens. 

No seriously, crazy shit happens. Cool magical stuff, regular "people are shitty" stuff.  I found it totally engrossing. I enjoyed being there, in that book, and after Deliverance Dane, it was interesting to see a tale of witchcraft outside of America and connected so clearly to the real political and social history of the time. It was also really cool to see explanations of the spells used, with specific recipes drawn from the literature of the time. 

So, in summation, it has magic (awesome), a female protagonist (necessary), a story of powerful women but not so powerful as to be fantastical (refreshing), and a real tie to history and respect for the people represented (bonus)! I was sad to let them go at the end of the book. You know a book touches you when that's the feeling you get at the end. It's why I love lengthy series. 

Next up, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. On account of President's day and stuff. Aren't you excited about that one?

No comments:

Post a Comment