It would seem that nothing more can be said — or even imagined — about the Salem witch trials. We get it: The innocents were used as scapegoats for society’s ills. But in her novel, “The Witchfinder’s Sister,” Beth Underdown has found a fresh approach, spinning a tale that’s entertaining and thought-provoking — with a valuable message for our own times.
Based loosely on the true story of “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins, the book focuses on the witch hunts during the early years of the English Civil War, rather than those that took place in colonial Massachusetts. Times are heady. There are rumors swirling and clashes between the Puritans and the mainstream Church of England (not to mention a few remaining Catholic holdouts). No one knows what will happen — the air is thick with paranoia and uncertainty.
Underdown beautifully creates a palpable sense of anxiety: “The next weeks were like one of those nightmares, the ones from which you cannot awake,” narrator Alice thinks. “I searched women gently. . . . Each one had a different tale, fit to break your heart, but what they had in common was loneliness, and too many nights spent listening; loose flesh where they had given birth or gained weight in other, better summers. What they had in common was fear.”
It’s 1645, and Alice has to return to her childhood home in Essex, England, widowed, penniless and pregnant. Her brother Matthew, who disapproved of her marriage to their housekeeper’s son, takes her in. Alice soon realizes that things are not as they were when she left. Matthew, who was shy and awkward as a boy, has become a respected figure in the community, accepted by the local squires and businessmen. Unfortunately, the reason for his change in status is that he’s become the county’s lead witchfinder.
Alice doesn’t believe in witchcraft and is shocked to learn that her brother is involved in persecuting harmless women, many of whom she has known her entire life. She thinks that the fuss will soon die down, but she comes to find that the stakes are deadly high — and perhaps not just for the women in question. The more she challenges Matthew, the more dire her own circumstances become, and she soon is forced (or chooses) to acquiesce to protect people she cares for, from their young serving girl to her own mother-in-law and, finally, herself.
Underdown has written a novel that grapples with two very important questions: how those in power oppress the powerless through fear and intimidation, and how the bystanders must decide what, if anything, they will do to stop it. “The Witchfinder’s Sister” serves as an important reminder — especially valuable today — of the consequences of such an imbalance.
Carrie Dunsmore is a lawyer who blogs at QueenofBooklandia.com.
By Beth Underdown
Ballantine. 312 pp. $28