Most people who didn’t pay someone to take the SATs for them know that Salem, Mass., was the scene of a far greater and more destructive witch hunt. During that infamous terror, which started in 1692, more than 200 people were accused of satanic activity, and 20 were executed.
Even at their most puritanical, though, American colonists were amateurs compared with witch hunters in Europe. In the 16th and 17th centuries, tens of thousands of people — possibly hundreds of thousands — were killed for practicing witchcraft. The craze was particularly virulent in Germany, and the victims were usually older women, not reality-TV stars. In fact, most of those who were tortured, hanged and burned on the testimony of some superstitious neighbor or sadistic cleric are lost in the shadows of history.
But in the early 1600s, in a German town called Leonberg, an illiterate widow named Katharina was arrested for sickening a fellow villager with a demonic potion. She was imprisoned for more than a year and threatened with torture before her son finally won her release.
We know these details because Katharina’s son was Johannes Kepler. While defending his mom against a collection of witchy rumors, on the side he was revolutionizing the science of astronomy.
That’s a good boy.
Katharina’s terrifying ordeal is now the subject of a new novel by Rivka Galchen called “Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch.” In her acknowledgments, Galchen writes, “I have never enjoyed working on a book as much as I enjoyed working on this one.” That may sound odd, given these grim details, but Galchen holds a degree in psychiatry, and her previous novel, “Atmospheric Disturbances,” is about a man convinced his wife has been replaced by a replica. Which is to say, Galchen is curious about how minds work — or don’t. And the witchcraft case of Katharina Kepler presents an irresistible opportunity to reflect on social paranoia, family dynamics and female agency.
Alas, not much has changed in 400 years. Women — particularly smart, demanding women — are still branded as nasty, dangerous and unnatural. In Galchen’s highly creative treatment, Katharina checks all the most alarming boxes.
“Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch” conjures up Katharina’s years-long ordeal as the defendant in a laborious investigation of her alleged satanic activity. And it’s no wonder certain figures in town have risen up against her. If it were just a matter of her wickedness, they might forgive her. But she has a wicked sense of humor.
Start collecting dry sticks.
Katharina notes that the woman who has accused her “looks like a comely werewolf.” She refers to the duke overseeing her case as “the False Unicorn,” who “looks like an unwell river otter in a doublet.” She summarizes the ludicrous powers attributed to her — “to pass through locked doors, to be the death of sheep, goats, cows, infants, and grapevines” — and then scoffs, “I can’t even win at backgammon.”
You can practically hear Katharina’s eyes rolling. Her wry dismissal of accusers is both what keeps her standing and what inflames her enemies. Her family begs her to be quiet — it’s no accident that troublesome women were humiliated with a “witch’s bridle” — but she persists with her caustic comments and withering rebuttals. As a sympathetic neighbor notes, “She was a frighteningly intelligent woman — also a fool.”
The comedy that runs through “Everyone Knows” is a magical brew of absurdity and brutality. Galchen has a Kafkaesque sense of the way the exercise of authority inflates egos and twists logic. Again and again, villagers are asked, “Do you understand that any false testimony you knowingly give will provoke God’s great anger in your earthly life and will deliver your soul unto Satan upon your death?” And again and again, these witnesses deliver the most outlandish claims in their own petty voices.
There’s real sorcery here, but it arises only from the way Galchen fuses ancient and modern consciousness. Her characters, mostly simple folks driven by greed and fear, speak in a casual contemporary patter flecked with the patina of a different era, a time closer to nature, to physical work. A disgraced man notes, “It was with great vigilance that I and my siblings pruned back any weed of the rumor that followed us.” Under oath, the baker’s wife demands: “Who rides a goat backward? I’m a humble woman. But even I know that only witches and sometimes devils do that.”
Their problem, as now, is epistemological. “We all know she’s a witch,” an investigator says. “We’ve always known. The matter of how we came to know is simple — we already knew.”
We’re told that Katharina acted like a man, caused a man’s leg to ache and passed through a locked door. One transcript, in which a witness claims he saw Frau Kepler in the form of a blackbird, sounds like Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch:
How was he witnessed?
By Frau Kepler, in the form of a blackbird. At first I thought it was only a blackbird.
What kind of a blackbird was it?
A black one, sir.
An ordinary blackbird?
I trust you know a blackbird.
Is the female blackbird not more brown than she is black?
I’m not an expert on birds, sir.
But you know the bird was Frau Kepler?
It was very obvious.
These testimonies present a jaw-dropping catalogue of anxieties, irritations and non sequiturs — all the various ways human beings can make themselves believe whatever they must to avoid acknowledging that they’re afraid, that they’re jealous, that they can’t control their lives. Late in the novel, all the most bizarre accusations are enumerated in a list that could pass for Renaissance Twitter — a reminder that our era didn’t invent misinformation; we just made it travel faster.
But “Everyone Knows” is no witchcraft-craze parody. Katharina’s life is completely disrupted, and her accusers start stripping away parts of her estate long before the trial is finished. Galchen never lets us forget that the likely outcome of such a flock of troubles is death by torture.
Running beneath the great battle for Katharina’s life, though, there’s a quieter tragedy. It involves the way her story comes to us: Katharina’s account is recorded by her literate neighbor, Simon Satler. He’s not at all comfortable in that role — so close to counselor or advocate for the accused. He’s not an outspoken man; he’s survived for decades by keeping his head down. “If there were a guild of non-sayers,” he notes, “that would be my guild.” But somehow he finds the courage to act as Katharina’s scribe — at least until the claims against his old friend start piling up. Then, who can blame him for feeling nervous? “I was and remained a too-quiet witness,” he confesses. It’s a poignant, painful record of an ordinary man’s decency tested by fire.
The fate of Kepler’s mother is a matter of historical record, but Galchen arrives at something the facts can’t catch — the exhaustion, the bone-weariness of fighting such misogyny year after year. It’s enough to break a weaker person.
“That’s what life is,” Katharina says. “A bunch of thorns, and a berry.”
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch
By Rivka Galchen
Farrar Straus Giroux. 288 pp. $27