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Review: Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch

Updated: May 19

3/5 stars

Such a good title!

This book is a work of fiction but based on actual events that took place in the mid 1600's in Europe - a moral panic that led to a series of witch trials that saw an estimated 900 people executed in what is now Germany (then part of the Roman Empire).

The story follows accused witch Katharina Kepler, mother of Johannes Kepler, a well-known mathematician and astronomer. (From Wikipedia, Kepler is "one of the founders and fathers of modern astronomy, the scientific method, and natural science.") From what I've read, Galchen sticks pretty faithfully to the facts of Katharina's life, but the narrative itself is from her perspective, written as a sort of memoir, so her day-to-day thoughts and feelings are fictional.

In the novel, Katharina is illiterate, and so dictates her story to her friend and neighbor Simon. Most of the narrative is her own telling of events, though Simon chimes in now and then to clarify or to add his own perspective. Katharina's account is witty and funny, despite the seriousness of the accusations against her. For example, she comes up with nicknames for her accusers, like "the werewolf" for her main accuser, "the cabbage" for that person's brother, and "the false unicorn" for the governor who brings the case against her on behalf of some of the citizens. Katharina is an independent widow living alone. She's a bit eccentric, and offers advice to others on herbal remedies for ailments. She lives unapologetically "out and about" in the town and has a brusque manner, which some townspeople view suspiciously. A widow should be sad and lonely and quiet, and stay in her home mourning, not taking walks, going to the market, and stating her opinions!

Between sections of Katharina's story there are fictional excerpts from testimony given by different townspeople, most of whom have some outlandish accusation to make - she poisoned me with bad wine, she looked at me and now my leg hurts, she rode a goat backwards until it died, I borrowed money from her and when she came to collect I didn't have it so she cursed my cows.

It's typical 1600's witch-hunty stuff, reminiscent of the witch trials we're all familiar with in Salem - a confluence of gossip, grudges, jealousy, superstition, rampant religiosity, and a patriarchal society's norms, all leading to unfounded accusations and, in many cases, execution. Katharina is the epitome of the phrase, "well-behaved women seldom make history." Some might even call her a "nasty woman" (remember that from the 2016 election?!). She does and says what she wants, and in the 1600's, both here and abroad, that alone was grounds for accusation in the unchecked moral panic of the day.


Up Next: Re-read of Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

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