The Last Witchfinder


James Morrow


Fiction / Literature


Date Reviewed:

August 12, 2006

he first few chapters of this book are crackling good, I thought I had found a masterpiece. This is the story of Jennet Stearne; her father is a witchfinder in 17th century England - he finds witches, and is paid for every one that he hauls before the justices. Jennet is being tutored by Aunt Isobel, a woman of independent means and with an independent mind who teaches Jennet about the new theories being published by Sir Isaac Newton. It occurs to Aunt Isobel that her new microscope can be used to spot satanic corruption, so she asks Jennet's father to bring back the captured familiars from his witch trials. Aunt Isobel dissects the unforunate beasts, and is disappointed that she is unable to find scientific evidence of demonic possession. Unfortunately, these dissections result in Aunt Isobel herself being accused as a witch. Jennet's father, determined to show he is a just man unswayed by family alligience, certifies that she is indeed a witch and turns her over to the authorities.

Young Jennet is horrified by the accusation, and seeks to enlist Sir Isaac Newton as a witness at her Aunt's trial. Jennet boldly makes her way across the English landscape, and, arriving at Newton's home, asks the occupant if he will defend Aunt Isobel. Unfortunately, Newton is not home when Jennet arrived, but the man who answers the door is Robert Hooke, a man who loathes Newton and who was prowling in the home seeking a way to strike back at the great man. Hooke realizes Jennet has mistaken him for his arch enemy, and so he vows that he, Isaac Newton, will indeed defend Aunt Isobel. At the trial, Hooke's bizarre performance does indeed damage Newton's considerable reputation, but unfortunately it also dooms poor Aunt Isobel to the the stake.

The English lords are appalled by the burning of Aunt Isobel (rather than the traditional hanging), and so find an excuse to ship Jennet's family off to the colonies, where there are so many more heathen and satanic worshippers. Soon Jennet is in Massachutes, during the era of the Salem witch trials, but it isn't long before she is captured during an Indian raid.

Up to this point, the novel was fantastic. The trials in Jennet's life, her portrayal has a decent young woman in a society of fear and suspicion - Morrow gives us an excellent story. But Jennet's years among the natives slips by without making much impression, and her subsequent rescue by a postman result in a marriage of convenience - and more years of her life slip past. The pace of the storytelling falls off, the momentum is lost. We believe Jennet still passionately wishes to abolish the profession of the witchfinders, but the years she spends trying to find a scientific method for discrediting them don't translate into a great story.

Things pick up a bit when Jennet falls in with young Ben Franklin (at the time of their meeting, Ben is only half of her age), but there is still a futile trip to England to endure, and a bizarre chapter as castaways upon a deserted island (why was this plot digression in the novel?) to get through. Eventually, now in her sixties, Jennets decides the best way to confront the witchfinders is to confront them head on in the courtroom - so she contrives to have herself put on trial for witchcraft. Jennet's witch trial is high drama indeed, the pace of the novel revives.

Jennet is a great characer. The horror of the witchfinders is an excellent subject. I don't rate this book higher because the middle part of the book seems to meander so much. Still, this is a worthy book. I have also read This Is the Way the World Ends, by James Morrow, and that was even better book than this one.