The Last Witchfinder: A Novel by James Morrow. New York: Harper Perennial. 2007. 560 pages.
The last dodo. The last passenger pigeon. The last wilderness. The last fill-in-the-blank usually evokes a sense of sadness, loss, and finality. The Last Witchfinder, the over-the-top epic about a sister and brother dedicated to opposing world views in a time of rapid advancements, celebrates the last — we hope — of ignorance at a truly devilish level. Unlike the harmless dodo, the pretty passenger pigeon, or the soul-searing wilderness, the last witchfinder is an repulsively compelling creation, a stubborn holdover from an irrational time, when as much evil was committed in the name of the Good Lord as Satan could hope for.
Jennet Stearne and her brother Dunstan arrive on the scene in England just as the Age of Reason is taking root. Their story isn't told by the standard omniscient human narrator. Instead, it's recalled by a more lasting, if questionably reliable, witness to the Enlightenment and all that's happened since — Newton's Principia. That this novel requires a little more imagination and suspension of belief is obvious when a book takes the place of a human author, while the humans are the mere subjects. Sometimes Morrow's odd device breathes a little academic vitality into the narration, but more often the Principia's interjections and commentaries are too intrusive, forced, awkward, and lengthy to be effective. The imagination carries one only so far.
Jennet and Dunstan are molded differently by their shared experiences. Their father, a witchfinder, makes his living by producing the proofs that condemn marginal or eccentric members of society, usually women, to gruesome state executions. His sister-in-law, a half-informed but intellectually curious devotee of Newton, becomes a threat to the beliefs of the past that fuel his existence. When she is condemned as a witch, Jennet makes it her mission to use Newton's work to disprove the concept of demons and witches. Her brother, his father's son and blinded by his lust for Abigail Williams (the star witness at the Salem witch trials) and religious ecstasy devoid of spirituality, clings aggressively to the past, seeking witches where there are no hints of any and becoming the last witchfinder even as the practice is dying in the shadows of the Englightenment.
Morrow uses some of the same devices found in early English novels like Tom Jones (Henry Fielding) and Tristram Shandy (Laurence Sterne), with chapter summaries and narrator intrusions and commentaries. At points, The Last Witchfinder is engaging, amusing, interesting, imaginative, and thought provoking. In his effort to emulate the likes of Fielding and Sterne, however, Morrow overdoes the diversions, ancillary incidents and characters, and irrelevant details. Never quite clearly defined, Jennet's mission is too easily sidetracked by too many improbable adventures and events, and the center section bogs down in its lack of focus. It's only when Dunstan, in his crazed unspiritual righteousness and deformity, returns to the scene that the plot picks up and the story comes back to life. The final meeting between Jennet and Dunstan is electrifying.
In a society that seems to be becoming more anti-intellectual, The Last Witchfinder is refreshing to the mind. Its premise and execution are flawed, but much of Jennet's journey is at least disturbing, interesting, and fun.
18 August 2012
Copyright © 2012 Diane L. Schirf