The Last Witchfinder: A Novel

The Last Witchfinder: A Novel

by James Morrow


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The Last Witchfinder: A Novel by James Morrow

From a writer who has been lauded as "an original — stylistically ingenious, savagely funny, always unpre-dictable" (Philadelphia Inquirer) and "unerring" (San Diego Union-Tribune), who has been compared to Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Updike, a writer whose pen has given us a devastating lampoon of the nuclear-arms race and an audacious answer to the outrageous question "What if God had a daughter?" — from this writer, the critically acclaimed James Morrow, comes a novel of history, adventure, science, sex, satire, absurdity, and philosophy.

Jennet Stearne's father hangs witches for a living in Restoration England. But when this precocious child witnesses the horrifying death of her beloved Aunt Isobel, unjustly executed as a sorceress, she makes it her life's mission to bring down the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act. A self-educated "natural philosopher," Jennet is inspired in her quest by a single sentence in a cryptic letter from Isaac Newton: It so happens that in the Investigations leading first to my Conjectures concerning Light and later to my System of the World, I fell upon a pretty Proof that Wicked Spirits enjoy no essential Existence. Armed with nothing but the power of reason and her memory of Isobel's love, Jennet cannot rest until she has put the last witchfinder out of business.

Abrim with picaresque adventures — escapades that carry Jennet from King William's Britain to the fledgling American Colonies to an uncharted Caribbean island — our heroine's search for justice entangles her variously in the machinations of the Salem Witch Court, the customs of her Algonquin Indian captors, the designs of a West Indies pirate band, and the bedsheets of her brilliant lover, the young Ben Franklin. Finally, in a reckless and courageous ploy, Jennet arranges to go on trial herself for sorcery, the only way she can defeat the witchfinders now and forever. Rich in detail, rollicking in style, and endlessly engaging, The Last Witchfinder is a tour de force of historical fiction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060821807
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/13/2007
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 560
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

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

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.

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Last Witchfinder 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 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
mbergman on LibraryThing 1 days ago
After seeing a beloved, enlightened aunt burned at the stake as a witch at the instigation of her own father, the protagonist devotes her life to developing a rational proof that witches cannot exist. Through a series of adventures probably equally implausible as those in The Historian, but made more plausible by the author, she is captured by New England Indians & lives among them, bearing a daughter who dies in an epidemic, then returns to white society & becomes Benjamin Franklin's lover; returning from England, they are stranded for years on a deserted island (except for the colony of escaped slaves they come upon after several years); there she bears Franklin's son, whom upon return to society once again she leaves to Franklin to rear as she continues her research. She herself is eventually brought to trial by her brother (but at her own intentional instigation) as a witch, thinking she can thus disprove the existence of witches. But she is convicted & condemned to hang, but is saved by Franklin & his colleagues & goes into exile among the Indians she lived with earlier, eventually returning to white society one more time. Through all of these adventures, the author has lots to say about religion (mostly negative) & reason. Oh, and there's a unique narrative strategy: having the story told by a book--Newton's Mathematica Principia. It starts out highly entertaining but can't really be sustained. But the author's voice is a compelling one nonetheless.
canalrat on LibraryThing 1 days ago
I like historical fiction, but I'm not so keen on fantasy, so this might not have been a good choice on my part.I could barely be bothered finishing it. There was a certain point (the shipwreck) where I really thought the storyline had done the equivalent of "jumping the shark". It was just too fanciful for me.I also felt that it was so densely written, and in fake old English (by definition, since it was written this decade) that it became laborious to read. I seem to be in the minority though!
bibliobeck on LibraryThing 1 days ago
'Steeth what a great book! A truly admirable heroine, a brilliantly re-written history and the cherry on the cake for me was the wise-cracking Principia Mathematica. I agree with the previous review about the laugh out loud moments - a fantastic read.
Joycepa on LibraryThing 1 days ago
As an intriguing premise, the story is written and narrated at times by a book--Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, whose "father"--author--was, of course, Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest physicists of all times. In a truly hilarious first chapter, the book describes its origins, discourses on its "father"--and sets the stage for the theme of the story--the battle between reason and illogic against the backdrop of late 17th century/early 18th century witch hunts and trials in both England and the American colonies. The story concerns the struggle of Jenneth Stearne, sister to a witchfinder, who from the moment she watches her beloved aunt Isobel burning at the stake because of her devotion to experimental science rather than superstition, struggles to achieve the overthrow of the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act--through reason. Likewise, Principia relates its 400 year old to-the-death duel with Malleus Mallificorum, the principle book used by witchfinders to identify witches.Jenneth and her family are forced to leave England, her father having been appointed Witchfinder royal for the colony of Massachusetts as a way of removing him from England. But her father is killed and Jenneth captured on an Indian raid. She never loses sight, however, of her vow to overthrow the Witchcraft Act.This leads her into a variety of adventures, including a long-lasting affair with the young Benjamin Franklin. Eventually, in desperation, she arranges to have herself declared a witch and put on trial, hoping in that fashion for a triumph of reason over superstition.i thought the device of using the Principia as narrator was really inventive and quite promising. But the book descended (from my point of view) into a picaresque novel; I don't like that particular style. Still there was enough invention that I kept reading. However, by the time Morrow brings Jenneth and Franklin together, in my opinion, his store of inventiveness ran out. I found that entire section, which takes up a substantial part of the book, boring. Part of the problem was that unless you were told who the speakers were, you would never be able to distinguish between Jenneth and Franklin--Morrow loses what distinctive voices they might have had. Another problem, again, was the picaresque factor. The various adventures of Franklin and Jenneth really did not add much to the book and certainly did not move the plot forward. Also, Morrow lost much of his humor by the middle of the book, which meant that it was heavy going. Even Principia's war with Malleus paled, and seemed too contrived.There are some clever literary devices in the book, such as the way Morrow segues from Jenneth's story to Principia as narrator and philosopher. Those were always interesting. Unfortunately, such devices can not carry a book.There are more interesting novels and plays, including those whose themes are witch trials and rationalist philosophy, than The Last Witchfinder.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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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