Sunday, April 11, 2010

Daughters of The Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

"Daughters of The Witching Hill" is a spellbinding tale of history and witchery. With this fact-based novel of the Pendle Witches, set in 17th century Lancashire, Mary Sharratt acts as a literary necromancer to give the dead a voice. She truly breathes life into her characters. The women who people this true tale of witchcraft, superstition, suspicion, and hysteria, are so vivid and vibrant, I could see them in my mind’s eye, hear their voices, and feel their wants, needs, fears, dreams, hopes, and pains.

The story begins with an elderly cunning or wise woman, Bess Southerns, known locally as “Old Demdike” who lives hand to mouth on the edge of poverty with her squint-eyed daughter, Liza, until she discovers her powers as a healer, and becomes eagerly sought after to bless and cure the sick, both human and animal. But a blessing can sometimes also be a curse, and with Bess’ gift to heal comes the suspicion that she puts her powers to use for darker purposes—revenge and curses.

But Bess is determined never to dabble in the dark arts--in fact many of her blessings derive from old Catholic prayers now outlawed by the fervent Protestants and Puritans and have nothing to do with Satan or pagan goddess worship at all--but when her best friend’s daughter is imperiled by the unwanted advances of one of the local gentry, Bess breaks her resolution, for love of her friend. But Anne will go beyond protecting her daughter and take everything Bess teaches her about blessings and spellcraft and set herself up as a rival cunning woman, one who is not above dabbling in the dark arts if it brings the coins in. And as Anne, already known as a local eccentric and object of disdain, becomes feared as a witch, and Bess’ own son-in-law believes she has cursed him, the final nail is driven into the coffin of their friendship.

Years later, when the community is suffering hard times, Bess, old, blind, and her powers failing, and her family find that the tide has turned against them, and those who once looked upon them with favor and sought their help, now regard them with suspicion and hostility. After a peddler suffers a debilitating stroke after exchanging harsh words with Bess’ beautiful granddaughter, Alizon, a zealous magistrate, eager to curry favor with King James by becoming the area’s premiere witchfinder, begins making arrests, and the stage is set for tragedy, a mockery of justice, and a trial every bit as tragic as America’s own Salem Witch Trials in which innocent lives will be lost.

Historical fiction fans, as well as those interested in the history and practice of witchcraft, and the witch-hunts that have stained our history with blood, are sure to find "Daughters of The Witching Hill" a fascinating and enthralling read. Though almost everyone has heard of the Salem Witch Trials, American readers may not be familiar with England’s Pendle Witch Hunt of 1612, so I urge those with an interest in such things, or just a love of well-written historical fiction, to give this book a try. It is a story I believe that needs to be told; when the dead are remembered a part of them lives again, and this is a story that should never be forgotten.

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