Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt
Hardcover, 352 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
April 7, 2012
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Received from the author for review
“Daughters of the Witching Hill brings history to life in a vivid and wrenching account of a family sustained by love as they try to survive the hysteria of a witch-hunt.
Bess Southerns, an impoverished widow living in Pendle Forest, is haunted by visions and gains a reputation as a cunning woman. Drawing on the Catholic folk magic of her youth, Bess heals the sick and foretells the future. As she ages, she instructs her granddaughter, Alizon, in her craft, as well as her best friend, who ultimately turns to dark magic.
When a peddler suffers a stroke after exchanging harsh words with Alizon, a local magistrate, eager to make his name as a witch finder, plays neighbors and family members against one another until suspicion and paranoia reach frenzied heights.
Sharratt interweaves well-researched historical details of the 1612 Pendle witch-hunt with a beautifully imagined story of strong women, family, and betrayal. Daughters of the Witching Hill is a powerful novel of intrigue and revelation.”
Going in to reading Daughters of the Witching Hill I had never before heard of the Pendle Witches. I of course had heard of, and read widely, about the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, and had read some about various witch trials in England, but this particular group was unknown to me. Mary Sharratt does a fabulous job of initiating a novice into the basics of who these Pendle Witches were and what brought about their downfall.
While I found the story of the Pendle Witches to be not nearly as dramatic as those that surround the Salem Witches, I discovered that there seems to be a set of characteristics that typify these witch hunts/trials: they tend to be poor women from the outside of town, usually based on some type of grudge, and more often than not their spells and potions were types of religious prayers and homeopathic cures. One thing I always find interesting is how easily a town will turn on people they had traditionally went to for a cure when their horse was lame or their child was deathly ill. These were people that they obviously trusted and had developed a history as a person who could cure ills - however when bad news comes knocking at your door, the innate nature of self-preservation kicks in.
The first half of Sharratt’s book focuses on developing the characters of her witches and I surprisingly found them easy to make connections with. The second half deals with the unraveling of their life as accusations of witchcraft and their sham trials spiral out of control. This was a very fast read for me – read it in one day – and while it is not a high action novel – the drama of the daily life of these women pulls you in. There was one thing that I did not like about the novel – and I won’t go into much specifics because it might give the ending away – however I think the book would have been overall more enjoyable for me if the last chapter was omitted. It felt very out-of-sync with the rest of the novel and a little contrived. The information it contained would have possibly been better included into the afterward or an epilogue rather than as the last actual chapter.
Author Mary Sharratt also has written Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen. You can visit Sharratt’s website or blog for additional information about the books. If you would like to preview the story before reading it, why not try out this excerpt of the book?
You can also watch the book trailer below.
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Copyright © 2012 by The Maiden’s Court