Mary Sharratt: Daughters of the Witching Hill
978-0547069678 – Hardcover – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – $24.00
I really enjoyed reading this book and came to admire its author, not only for her writing skills, which are very good indeed, but because she was able to so deeply and movingly inhabit her characters in a place and time so foreign from our own. Mary Sharratt’s novel is transcendent in many ways. It centers around the years leading up to the 1612 Lancashire, England, witch trials that resulted in the executions of nine supposed witches. Mary Sharratt has brilliantly imagined her story, in which witchcraft is real, albeit not evil in the way the accusers made out. It’s much more complicated – in fact this witchcraft is the folk medicine and healing power of the local spirits of pre-Christian England. Never preachy, Sharratt gives us a countryside where politics and money separate people from one another, and crushing poverty is the lot of so many.
Widowed mother Bess Southerns supports her family and friends by healing the sick, telling fortunes, and blessing those facing misfortune, conjuring charmes that combine forbidden Catholic ritual, medicinal herbs, and guidance provided by her spirit-friend, Tibb. Bess is always careful, knowing the dangers her powers create for her but eventually everything unravels in a series of events that finally gets Bess, her family, friends and supporters into inevitable trouble with the law. Sharratt has crafted a beautiful historical novel that brings this era to life and gives its people she writes about a deep and complex life that many will find surprising. The conflicts between religions, as well as the conflicts between class are here, as well as mystery and suffering and beauty too. The book is set in the English countryside where the author, an American, currently lives. It’s clear to me that Mary Sharratt has allowed this place to inhabit her, as much as she it. She has put together a beautifully crafted story, full of complexity and compelling characters, and even knowing how the book must end, I was hooked from beginning to end.
As a reader I was transported there with her, and found her story uplifting, painful, and beautiful all at the same time. This is a wonderful book.
In my interview with Mary, we talked about her experience as an American living in the English countryside, and how she came to write this book. We talked about the story itself, her characters, their lives, the nature of English witchcraft of the 16th century, power and politics and the warp and weave of her excellent story.