Satire is a tricky thing—even done well, it can date badly. James Morrow is an author who not only manages to produce good satire, but give it a timeless quality. He picks and pokes at twin absurdities of life that will never go away or lose their relevance: The strange ways humans think and how that impacts the way […]
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.
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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 WitchfinderA Novel
By James Morrow
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright ©2006 James Morrow
All right reserved.
Chapter Introducing Our Heroine,
Whose Father Hunts Witches,
Whose Aunt Seeks Wisdom,
and Whose Soul Desires
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 . . .
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