Daughters of the Witching Hill
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who graciously agreed to help me clean up my backlog of review books as I continue to slog through grad school.
In 1612, seven women and two men were tried and hanged as witches in Lancashire, England. Sharratt, who lives in Lancashire, has written an extraordinary fictional account of the lives of these alleged witches, the trial, and the times.
Cunning woman Elizabeth Demdike grew up in Catholic England, but when the Protestant Reformation makes her faith illegal, she still manages to use the prayers of her childhood to bless and cure her sick neighbors and their livestock. She is aided in her efforts by Tibb, a familiar spirit who loves her as her husband never did.
But Elizabeth’s best friend Anne is visited by a familiar spirit of her own, and chooses a different path than Elizabeth – one of curses and fear instead of healing and hope.
In time, Elizabeth’s granddaughter Alizon develops powers similar to her grandmother’s. Instead of learning to use them and consequently embracing the Old Religion (Catholicism), Alizon rejects her family heritage. When she has an unfortunate angry encounter with a peddler that leaves the man completely paralyzed on one side, charges of witchcraft are brought – not only on Alizon but also on her entire family and their closest friends. Alizon can only pray and not lose faith as the story reaches its tragic, inevitable conclusion.
Sharratt uses transcripts of the actual trials as the basis for the book, as well as stories and legends from around Lancashire. The result is an extremely well-written, highly detailed story that will effortlessly transport the reader to a time when James I was king and his book Daemonologie, was number one on the 17th century England bestseller list. It’s one thing to know the characters are, or were, real people. Sharrat brings them to full life, flaws and all, but without turning them into stereotypes. They could be your dotty grandmother, your annoying little sister, your childhood friend.
Which is not to say that, as a Pagan reader, this was a particularly easy read. Quite the opposite, in fact. New Pagans may feel outrage about the over-inflated “nine million” victims of the “Burning Times” but reading a detailed narrative of the arrest, trial and hanging of one young person has a much deeper emotional impact. I cried at the end. This book should be on every modern witch’s bookshelf.
Five gold paws out of five