How we deal with adversity in life depends a lot on how we answer this question: why do bad things happen to good people? Some people are more comfortable with chaos and don’t believe in karma or divine action. Others look for a bigger reason than A causes B and shit happens. In the 1600s, in the Holy Roman Empire and a lot of other places in Europe, the bigger reason was witches. If something bad happened to you, your family, your business, or your livestock, it was because you’d had the misfortune of getting on the wrong side of a witch. The real bad luck, I think, is if you’re the one accused of being a witch, like the protagonist of Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch.
I didn’t know before I started this book that it was based on real history. In the 1610s and 1620s, the astronomer (and writer of proto science fiction, it turns out) Johannes Kepler had to take breaks from his position as Imperial Mathematician to the Holy Roman Emperor to defend his mother from charges of witchcraft. Katharina Kepler is the kind of woman who annoys people, even those who say they like her. She says whatever comes into her head. She insists on doing things her way. The fact that quite a few people in her town owe her money is also a mark against her. But everyone thinks that she might have been alright if she hadn’t filed for slander against the first people who officially accused her of being a witch and embarrassed the local aristocracy. From there, things get increasingly dire.
Galchen wrote in her afterword that she used translated court documents from Kepler’s trial, letters, and other contemporary sources to give structure to a narrative that moves between Katharina’s version of events and those of her neighbor Simon, who agrees to act as Katharina’s guardian (because women needed one in those days). Reading all these different accounts—the things the characters say and purposefully don’t say—makes for a very interesting story of betrayal, denunciation, lies, loyalty, and tangled legal proceedings. And I do love a book with unreliable narrators.
It was an interesting experience to read Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch shortly after reading A Demon-Haunted Land, by Monica Black, a nonfiction account of healers and witch accusations in Germany after World War II. Black’s book is full of citations to philosophers, psychologists, and thinkers who theorize about why people believe in witches. I felt more prepared for Galchen’s fictionalized version of Katharina Kepler’s story; I paid a lot more attention to the hidden motives of Katharina’s accusers. The first accusers were, I think, motivated by money that they owe Katharina. But then things start to take on a life of their own as more and more “witnesses” come forth to link a look or a bad word or a remedy from Katharina to something bad that later happened to them. Black’s book showed me the “logic” of witch accusations. Which is to say, because I knew more about how accusations of witchcraft come about, I was lot more afraid for Katharina than I might have been before I read A Demon-Haunted Land because I knew there would be no reasoning with the people pointing fingers at her.
Galchen writes in a very modern-sounding idiom. (There are a lot of people saying “okay” in this book.) The writing style, the use of historical research, and sense of time passing made for an absorbing reading experience. I got completely pulled into Katharina’s life and trials. This was historical fiction at its best.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.