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Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: Daughters of Witching Hill

  • Author: Mary Sharratt
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (January 5, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547422296
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547422299

Daughters of Witching Hill is a fictionalized account of the Pendle Witch Trials that took place in  17th century England. The author drew upon actual court records to flesh out the story of Elizabeth Bess (aka Mother Demdike), her daughter Liza, and her grand-daughter Alizon Device. 

It seems that it was the lot of these women to live in poverty, that is, until the appearance of "Tibb" to Mother Demdike who acted as her familiar spirit and taught her her craft. She used this knowledge to heal the sick and bless the unfortunate and in return she and her family were well fed when many others went hungry. Her new found powers engendered respect from some who regarded her as a healer and blesser, but others feared her a witch.

In time, both Mother Demdike's daughter and granddaughter learned that they too had the gift of magic. While Liza initially used her powers to help others, she gradually began to use them less and less; and Alizon always resisted the path of power even as it grew within her. Alizon had an older brother, James, who appeared to have the gift as well; however, due to him being born developmentally challenged he did not fully understand his abilities nor did he always use them ethically. 

In time, it became neccessary for Mother Demdike to teach her best friend, Anne Whittle, the magical arts so that she may use them to protect her daughter from being raped by their landlord. However, it appears that having tasted true power, Anne takes it to a dark place and gains a reputation for being a petty witch rather than the healer that is Mother Demdike.  Eventually, Mother Demdike comes to believe that Annie has targeted her family for ruin by using her dark arts and out of love for her own family she must make some difficult choices.

While some would say that Ann Whittle is the chief antagonist of this story, I believe the true villain here is ignorance and fear. These events took place in a time when people believed that devils lurked around every corner to steal your soul and drag you down to hell. King James made Catholicism essentially illegal and spread the idea that Satan had an army of witches ready to topple his kingdom and bring his subjects to ruin. People were starving and would do anything or say anything to survive; and those who lacked it are faced with difficult decisions when they come into possession of true-power.

Daughters of Witching Hill was a quick read and I liked the description of the Catholic Folk Magic practices that the author included in the book, which actually reflects genuine practices at the time and place in question. I especially liked the scene in which Mother Demdike and her daughter, Liza, cast the spell of the sieve and the shear to learn the identity of a thief. Those are are interested in the Salem Witch trials, historical fiction, or magical fiction will thoroughly enjoy this book. However, this being a ficitonalized account of real event in history, don't expect a happy ending for all.


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