Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, March 26, 2006
THE LAST WITCHFINDER
By James Morrow
Morrow. 526 pp. $25.95
James Morrow's novel about early American witchcraft pulls off so many dazzling feats of literary magic that in a different century he'd have been burned at the stake. Forget "The Crucible," Arthur Miller's dreary classic. Forget the repugnant kitsch of modern-day Salem. The Last Witchfinder flies us back to that thrilling period when scientific rationalism was dropped into the great cauldron of intellectual history, boiling with prejudice, tradition, piety and fear. The result is a fantastical story mixed so cunningly with real-life details that your vision of America's past may never awaken from Morrow's spell.
His heroine is Jennet Stearne, born in England in 1677. Her widower father is a "bald-headed, sweat-spangled practitioner of a vanishing trade." He's a witchfinder; he tests people accused of demonology. As a young girl, Jennet looks forward to the day when she might accompany him on this sacred work: pricking moles and warts, dropping bound prisoners into water, listening to frightened old women recite the Lord's Prayer. The Bible provides the authority -- "Thou must not suffer a witch to live" -- but winning a conviction is all a matter of careful, expert examination.
To assist him, Jennet's beloved aunt searches for more reliable physical symptoms of necromancy. A wealthy woman with a keen interest in the latest discoveries, including a radical outlook called "the scientific method," she leads Jennet through a study of physics and biology, peering through her new microscope at the innards of captured familiars. But "they hide their diabolism well," she notes with rising frustration, unable to find any convincing proof of Satanism among all the dissected cats and toads brought to her from witches' dens. Unfortunately, before she can articulate her budding skepticism of the whole enterprise, she's accused of witchcraft, convicted by Jennet's father and burned alive in one of the novel's many blistering scenes. Jennet witnesses the entire ordeal and hears her aunt's defiant cries on the pyre. In that moment, she takes the title "Lady Jennet, Hammer of Witchfinders," denounces her father and dedicates her life to proving that no such thing as witchcraft exists.
What follows over the next 400 pages is the story of her endlessly exciting quest. When Jennet's father is sent to Massachusetts, the assignment feels more like exile, but those dark woods are full of savages, and at "one guinea per detected Satanist," he hopes to make a fortune. Indeed, he arrives in the early 1690s and is quickly engaged to assist the Rev. Parris with an infestation of malevolence in Salem, one of the many real events that Morrow cleverly laces through his story. Jennet's father finds most of the proceedings hysterical and unorthodox (though not for the reasons we do), but her brother falls in love with Abigail Williams, the instigator of that famous paranoid tragedy, and together they take over his father's work throughout New England.
Jennet, meanwhile, continues collecting evidence, studying the latest scientific treatises and trying to compose an argumentum grande so lucid, so convincing, so illuminating that it can finally demolish the witchcraft laws that sent more than half a million people to their deaths in Europe. It's no easy task for a poor young woman alone in the world to take on the age's deepest fears, but she's an extraordinary blend of curiosity and passion. Morrow drives her through a gauntlet of adventures, from Indian attack to shipwreck, from desert island to jail, a grand picaresque tour of England and the American colonies.
Along the way, she interacts with some of the 17th century's most illustrious characters. Her long-delayed meeting with Sir Isaac Newton reveals the English scientist as a basket case of preoccupations and jealousies. Baron de Montesquieu is dazzled by her beauty and intelligence, even as he works out ideas that will later form the basis of our Constitution. But the most marvelous encounter is her relationship with a horny young printer named Ben Franklin. By this time, Jennet is old enough to be his mother, but Franklin, you'll remember, had a thing for older women: "They have more Knowledge of the World and . . . they are so grateful!!" Morrow brings Franklin alive here in all his delightful wit and enthusiasm. Together Jennet and Ben plumb the mysteries of electricity (both in the lab and, hilariously, in the bedroom) and dedicate their lives to explaining the apparently occult actions of nature: Why do the geese get sick? Why does the milk curdle? Why are men sometimes impotent? Morrow shows that their challenge is not just to present new evidence, but to change what their frightened peers consider evidence, to fundamentally shift the basis of thought. Their efforts eventually provoke a spectacular confrontation with the old world view, a conflict that threatens not only Jennet's lifework but also her life.
The most startling element of the novel, though, is its narrator -- so strange that I almost hesitate to mention it for fear you'll think I'm bewitched. Newton's Principia Mathematica tells this story of Jennet's life. It turns out that that seminal work of "natural philosophy," which formed the basis of classical mechanics, has a cheeky personality and an immortal consciousness wholly distinct from Newton. It's a weird act of personification that seems at first an intolerably cute bit of post-structural gamesmanship: "May I speak candidly," the narrator begins, "one rational creature to another, myself a book and you a reader?" But Morrow carries this off with such humor and heart that it quickly sounds like the most natural thing in the world to imagine books writing other books and watching history move through ghastly fits and starts. Most important, Morrow uses this strange narrator to frame Jennet's struggle in terms of the long battle between rationalism and superstition that's still being played out today.
The result is so enchanting that when I finished the novel, I sat for a moment wondering when I could visit Jennet's grave in Philadelphia. She's such an extraordinary character captured in the crucible of human progress that I can't imagine how we got here without her. Watch out for James Morrow: He's magic. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.