The Last Witchfinder defies description a little bit: maybe historical fantasy? Author James Morrow follows the horrific history of witch finding in the early to mid 1700s from England to America through the character of Jennet Stearne. The daughter and sister of witchfinders and niece of an accused witch, she spends her life trying to come up with a grand argument that would legally undermine the witch laws, using Newton for her guide.
Along the way, she is abducted by Algonquin Indians, shipwrecked with Ben Franklin, and accused of witchcraft herself. And, in an oddly fascinating twist, the narrator is Newton’s Principia Mathematica, the text that Jennet used for her argument, and in the interludes, the book describes its battle against the Malleus Maleficarum, the witch hunting handbook. Here’s where fantasy really takes over.
What I really loved, however, was the rich, evocative writing, often ironic, and sometimes just fun.
A couple timely samples:
“She [Jennet} wanted only to sit in the shadowed library, let the darkness seep into her bones, and ponder her suspicion that the world contained things of which neither monks nor mathematicians could give a sensible account.” (p. 62)
“I am well aware that the average member of your species will not abandon a pleasurable opinion simply because the evidence argues against it. Self-doubt is a suit of clothes that few of you ever acquire and fewer still wear comfortably.” (p. 113)
And, from the narrator, an anachronistic insight into the contemporary world that is, I think, bleaker than it seems but uncomfortably close to the truth. I would like to think we would take a selfie with the wildflowers:
“True, thanks to all those exquisite quantum equations, you humans now have television (though in my opinion the whole thing went downhill after The Avengers), mobile phones (allowing you to walk through a field of stunningly gorgeous wild flowers without actually being there), and personal computers (hour after hour you stare at the screen, a life of cybernetic desperation.”
I heard Thoreau echoing in that last bit: “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” he write in the opening of Walden. Perhaps cybernetic desperation is not so quiet: living our lives within view of everyone, seemingly all the time.