Last Witchfinder
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Last Witchfinder

4.6 10
by James Morrow

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Jennet Stearne's father hangs witches for a living in Restoration England. But when she witnesses the unjust and horrifying execution of her beloved aunt Isobel, the precocious child decides to make it her life's mission to bring down the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act. Armed with little save the power of reason, and determined to see justice prevail, Jennet hurls


Jennet Stearne's father hangs witches for a living in Restoration England. But when she witnesses the unjust and horrifying execution of her beloved aunt Isobel, the precocious child decides to make it her life's mission to bring down the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act. Armed with little save the power of reason, and determined to see justice prevail, Jennet hurls herself into a series of picaresque adventures—traveling from King William's Britain to the fledgling American Colonies to an uncharted island in the Caribbean, braving West Indies pirates, Algonquin Indian captors, the machinations of the Salem Witch Court, and the sensuous love of a young Ben Franklin. For Jennet cannot and must not rest until she has put the last witchfinder out of business.

Editorial Reviews

New York Times
“Here are storytelling, showmanship and provocative book-club bait, all rolled into one inventive feat.”
Washington Post Book World
“Endlessly exciting ... A grand picaresque tour of England and the American colonies ... Watch out for James Morrow: He’s magic.”
Denver Post
“Read[s] like a collaboration between Charles Dickens and Henry Fielding...Morrow is long overdue for a mainstream audience.”
Booklist (starred review)
“This impeccably researched, highly ambitious novel — nine years in the writing — is a triumph of historical fiction.”
Daily Telegraph (London)
“Dazzling . . . [A]n extravagant, expansive, erudite, energetic feast of information and adventure.”
Pages Magazine
“This lively and thoughtful adventuer is filled with enough satire and plot to fuel two Mark Twain tomes.”
Seattle Times
“Grim and gorgeous, earthy and erudite as well.”
Rocky Mountain News
“Morrow seamlessly weaves fantasy with science and historical fact in one of the best novels of the year.”
USA Today
“A book to delight fans of writers such as John Barth and T.C. Boyle. Or even Jonathan Swift.”
Fort Wayne (IN) Journal Gazette
“[A] richly detailed, cerebral tale of rationality versus superstitious bigotry.”
"This impeccably researched, highly ambitious novel — nine years in the writing — is a triumph of historical fiction."
Jason Goodwin
James Morrow is a wildly imaginative and generous novelist who plays hilarious games with grand ideas. He's been compared to Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain, and with his latest novel Fielding and Sterne should be added to the list.
— The New York Times
Ron Charles
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.
— The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
It is a book to which Mr. Morrow devoted seven years, according to its jacket copy. And that prodigious dedication pays off. Here are storytelling, showmanship and provocative book-club bait (try finding another recent novel that rivals this one for erudite talking points), all rolled into one inventive feat.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Nine years in the making, Morrow's richly detailed, cerebral tale of rationality versus superstitious bigotry is set in late-17th-century London and colonial New England, a time when everyday actions were judged according to the rigid Parliamentary Witchcraft Act and suspect women were persecuted for alleged acts of sorcery. Inquisitive, "kinetic" Jennet Stearne, daughter of militant Witchfinder Gen. Walter Stearne, witnesses this pursuit of "Satanists" up close when her beloved maternal Aunt Isobel Mowbray, a philosopher and scientist, is put on trial and burned at the stake for her progressive ideas. Thirteen-year-old Jennet and her younger brother, Dunstan, immigrate with their now-infamous father to Massachusetts, where Walter (disgraced in England for executing his propertied sister-in-law) puts his "witchfinding" expertise into savage overdrive at the Salem witch trials. Abducted in a raid, Jennet spends seven years captive to the Algonquin Nimacook, until she's freed by and married to Boston postmaster Tobias Crompton. Years later, after a divorce (!), she becomes smitten (and enlightened) by a young Benjamin Franklin. For a metafictional touch to this intrepid, impeccably researched epic (after Blameless in Abaddon), Newton's Principia Mathematica speaks intermittently, its jaunty historical and critical commentary knitted cleverly into the narrative. This tour-de-force of early America bears a buoyant humor to lighten its macabre load. (Mar.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The protagonist of Morrow's (The Eternal Footman) latest novel is a self-confident young woman named Jennet Stearne, whose father is a witchfinder in late 17th-century England; upon his death, her brother picks up their father's mantle to scourge Satan in Salem, MA. When Jennet's bluestocking aunt, Isobel, is burned at the stake for witchcraft, Jennet determines that her one goal in life will be to bring down the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act of 1604. She moves to the Colonies, where, after many adventures, she takes a young Ben Franklin as lover. She fakes being a witch to gain a forum for her Newtonian views on the absurdity of witchcraft; her brother prosecutes her, and the Baron de Montesquieu, one of the greatest political philosophers of the era, defends her at her trial. Picaresque heroes typically rattle through history, reacting to rather than shaping the near-fantastic mishaps that befall them, but not Jennet! Jennet is a magnet for continual controversy but is determined to win through and does. She is an attractive heroine in an exceptionally engaging and piquantly thoughtful novel. Though similar to John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor in many respects, Witchfinder is warmer and more human. Strongly recommended.-David Keymer, Modesto, CA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-England in the late 17th century is an exciting-if dangerous-home for Jennet Stearne, a teen whose family is a microcosm of the country's philosophical and religious conflicts. Though she is enthralled by Isaac Newton's theories and her progressive Aunt Isobel's scientific experiments, she also takes pride in her father, Walter, who is a highly regarded professional witch-hunter. Jennet's filial piety and belief system are overturned abruptly when blameless Isobel is burned at the stake because Walter labels her a witch. The girl vows to prevent other unjust executions by using science to prove witchcraft nonexistent. Her stubborn quest goes on for decades, leading her into wild adventures that include being captured by pirates, becoming an adoptive Native American, witnessing the Salem witch craze, and carrying on an affair with the young Ben Franklin. Jennet and her companions dash through an energetic narrative that re-creates the period believably, thanks to the author's admirable linguistic and historical research. While the protagonist is an appealing character, the real star is Newton's Principia Mathematica, whose amusing commentary provides a new twist to notions about the power and endurance of the printed word. This is a clever literary fantasy costumed as a traditional historical novel and a treat for fiction lovers.-Starr E. Smith, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Dominating this wide-ranging historical adventure novel is the campaign by one woman to end witch hunts in England and its North American colonies. Clever little Jennet Stearne. While her father Walter, self-appointed Witchfinder-General, is away on the warpath in eastern England in 1688, the 11-year-old is absorbing Newtonian science from her scholarly Aunt Isobel. When Walter, acting on a complaint, targets Isobel herself, gutsy Jennet travels to Cambridge to enlist Isaac Newton's help. Everything goes wrong, first comically, then horribly, for Isobel is burned at the stake, but not before enjoining Jennet to publish a work that will demolish the medieval text (Malleus Maleficarum) that empowered witchfinders and presaged the 1604 Parliamentary Witchcraft Act. Walter has overreached by targeting Isobel, a woman of property, and is exiled to the colonies, along with Jennet and her younger brother Dunstan. Massachusetts is fertile ground for witchfinders; the notorious Salem trials are starting and Dunstan will eventually marry Abigail Williams, that hysterical young accuser. Before Jennet can flee her appalling father and brother, she is abducted by Indians. There follows a pleasantly pastoral time-out before she is rescued by a mailman on horseback. Their consequent marriage fails when their child almost drowns (Jennet was engrossed in Newton). The rollercoaster continues. In Philadelphia, she meets Benjamin Franklin; they become lovers, despite their considerable age difference. They travel to London and meet Newton. Returning home, they are shipwrecked on a Caribbean island. It is here that Nature prompts Jennet's epiphany, her "demon disproof"; her influential treatise is publishedby Franklin. Fortune's wheel turns some more (Jennet engineers her own trial as a witch, big mistake) before witchfinding runs its course and that dreadful statute is repealed. Morrow's latest (he's perhaps best known for The Godhead Trilogy) is commendably ambitious, but this intensely cerebral extravaganza doesn't really work; Jennet is more a talking head than a fully formed character, and Morrow's prose, cobwebbed with archaisms, is no help.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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P.S. Series
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Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Last Witchfinder

A Novel
By James Morrow

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright ©2006 James Morrow
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060821795


Introducing Our Heroine,
Jennet Stearne,
Whose Father Hunts Witches,
Whose Aunt Seeks Wisdom,
and Whose Soul Desires
an Object
It Cannot Name

May I speak candidly, fleshling, one rational creature to another, myself a book and you a reader? Even if the literature of confession leaves you cold, even if you are among those who wish that Rousseau had never bared his soul and Augustine never mislaid his shame, you would do well to lend me a fraction of your life. I am Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, after all -- in my native tongue, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the Principia for short -- not some tenth-grade algebra text or guide to improving your golf swing. Attend my adventures and you may, Dame Fortune willing, begin to look upon the world anew.

Unlike you humans, a book always remembers its moment of conception. My father, the illustrious Isaac Newton, having abandoned his studies at Trinity College to escape the great plague of 1665, was spending the summer at his mother's farm in Woolsthorpe. An orchard grew beside the house. Staring contemplatively through his bedroom window, Newton watched an apple dropfree of its tree, driven by that strange arrangement we have agreed to call gravity. In a leap of intuition, he imagined the apple not simply as falling to the ground but as striving for the very center of the Earth. This fruit, he divined, bore a relationship to its planet analogous to that enjoyed by the moon: gravitation, ergo, was universal -- the laws that governed terrestrial acceleration also ruled the heavens. As below, so above. My father never took a woman to his bed, and yet the rush of pleasure he experienced on that sweltering July afternoon easily eclipsed the common run of orgasm.

Twenty-two years later -- in midsummer of 1687 -- I was born. Being a book, a patchwork thing of leather and dreams, ink and inspiration, I have always counted scholars among my friends, poets among my heroes, and glue among my gods. But what am I like in the particular? How is the Principia Mathematica different from all other books? My historical import is beyond debate: I am, quite simply, the single greatest work of science ever written. My practical utility is indisputable. Whatever you may think of Mars probes, moon landings, orbiting satellites, steam turbines, power looms, the Industrial Revolution, or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, none of these things is possible without me. But the curious among you also want to know about my psychic essence. You want to know about my soul.

Take me down from your shelf. If you're like most humans, you've accorded me a place of prestige, right next to the Bible, perhaps, or rubbing covers with Homer. Open me. Things start out innocuously enough, with eight turgid but not indigestible definitions concerning mass, acceleration, and force, followed by my father's three famous laws of motion. Continue turning my pages. Things are getting pretty rough -- aren't they? -- propositions proliferating, scholia colliding, lemmas breeding like lab rats. "The centripetal forces of bodies, which by equable motions describe different circles, tend to the centers of the same circles, and are to each other as the squares of the arcs described in equal times divided respectively by the radii of the circles." Lugubrious, I'll admit. This isn't Mother Goose.

But you can't judge a book by its contents. Just because my father stuffed me with sines, cosines, tangents, and worse, that doesn't make me a dry or dispassionate fellow. I have always striven to attune myself to the aesthetic side of mathematics. Behold the diagram that illustrates Proposition XLI. Have you ever beheld a more sensual set of lines? Study the figure accompanying Proposition XLVIII. Have arcs and cycloids ever been more beautiful? My father set geometry in motion. He taught parabolas to pirouette and hyperbolas to gavotte. Don't let all my conventional trigonometric discourse fool you, by the way. Determined to keep his methods a secret, Newton wrote out his discoveries in the mathematics of his day. What's really afoot here is that amazing tool he invented for calculating the rate of change of a rate of change. Abide with me, fleshling, and I shall teach you to run with the fluxions.

The precise metaphysical procedures by which a book goes about writing another book need not concern us here. Suffice it to say that our human scribes remain entirely ignorant of their possession by bibliographic forces; the agent in question never doubts that his authorship is authentic. A bit of literary history may clarify matters. Unlike Charles Dickens's other novels, Little Dorrit was in fact written by The Færie Queene. It is fortunate that Jane Austen's reputation does not rest on Northanger Abbey, for the author of that admirable satire was Paradise Regained in a frivolous mood. The twentieth century offers abundant examples, from The Pilgrim's Progress cranking out Atlas Shrugged, to Les Misérables composing The Jungle, to The Memoirs of Casanova penning Portnoy's Complaint.

Occasionally, of course, the alchemy proves so potent that the appropriated author never produces a single original word. Some compelling facts have accrued to this phenomenon. Every desert romance novel bearing the name E. M. Hull was actually written by Madame Bovary on a lark; Mein Kampf can claim credit for most of the Hallmark greeting cards printed between 1958 and 1967; Richard Nixon's entire oeuvre traces to a collective effort by the science-fiction slush pile at Ace Books. Now, as you might imagine, upon finding a large readership through one particular work, the average book aspires to repeat its success. Once The Wasteland and Other Poems generated its first Republican Party platform, it couldn't resist creating all the others. After Waiting for Godot acquired a taste for writing Windows software documentation, there was no stopping it.

In my own case, I started out small, producing a Provençal cookbook in 1947 and an income-tax preparation guide in 1983. But now I turn my attention to a more ambitious project . . .


Excerpted from The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow Copyright ©2006 by James Morrow. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James Morrow is the author of nine previous novels, including The Last Witchfinder. He lives in State College, Pennsylvania.

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Last Witchfinder 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was so fun to read. The premise of great books having a kind of spirit of their own, and also dictating the text of other books to reflect their individual nature was artfully infused with the plot, making a very smooth road to read. I loved the book and the tale, both which were worth the effort to read. This book is not a quick read, you actually need to keep the pace and retain a bit of the humor, which abounds if you are used to quick wit. The historical context of the story and setting are worth the read even if you are not into the humor of books competing against each other for honors! Very original and very entertaining. I have not read a book like this in a very long time. I highly recommend this for history buffs, folks who are into humor, and everyone who has a religious bend to their curious bone when it comes to how religion has justified horrors and dark dramas in human history. Paul Swanson
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Great character development, engaging story line, hard to put down!
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harstan More than 1 year ago
When curious Jennet Stearne was a preadolescent her beloved Aunt Isobel Mowbray encouraged scientific learning in her niece and nephew Dunstan on the other hand Jennet¿s father General Walter Stearne was a zealous witchfinder, who severely applied the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act of 1604 to anyone behaving ¿peculiar¿ including inquisitive female scientists who happen to be his sister-in-law. When the thirteen years old Jennet watched the burning of her aunt at the stake as a witch, she knew better and vowed to see the ungodly injustice of that parliamentary act repealed. --- However, Walter apparently crossed the line when he killed Isobel as she was gentry. Forced to leave England in disgrace, a still fanatical Walter takes his two children to Salem, Massachusetts to continue his life¿s work to the point that he ignores the abduction of Isabel by Algonquin Nimacook because he had trials to conduct. Boston postmaster Tobias Crompton eventually rescues Isobel and marries and divorces her. Her passion to end the witch trials hits a crescendo when her brother, a chip off the old block, prosecutes her as a witch her defense provided by Baron de Montesquieu employs Newton's Principia Mathematica. --- This terrific historical fiction novel brings to life the vast impact of the witchcraft trials in England and Massachusetts through the eyes of a heroine who chooses science over the mumbo jumbo of her father and brother. Isobel is courageous as she watches first hand the tragedy of her aunt and others, thrives even under Indian captivity, and ultimately risks her life to prove the nonsense of the witchfinders. James Morrow provides a strong tale of the late seventeenth century war between the enlightenment and the superstitious that seems so intelligently timed with politicians redesigning the same debate. --- Harriet Klausner