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The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown

BOTTOM LINE: An interesting glimpse into history


Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 25 April 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“Essex, England, 1645. With a heavy heart, Alice Hopkins returns to the small town she grew up in. Widowed, with child, and without prospects, she is forced to find refuge at the house of her younger brother, Matthew. In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew has become a man of influence and wealth—but more has changed than merely his fortunes. Alice fears that even as the cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face, something terrible has scarred Matthew’s soul.

There is a new darkness in the town, too—frightened whispers are stirring in the streets, and Alice’s blood runs cold with dread when she discovers that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he’s become, Alice is desperate to intervene—and deathly afraid of the consequences. But as Matthew’s reign of terror spreads, Alice must choose between her safety and her soul.

Alone and surrounded by suspicious eyes, Alice seeks out the fuel firing her brother’s brutal mission—and is drawn into the Hopkins family’s past. There she finds secrets nested within secrets: and at their heart, the poisonous truth. Only by putting her own life and liberty in peril can she defeat this darkest of evils—before more innocent women are forced to the gallows.

Inspired by the real-life story of notorious ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins, Beth Underdown’s thrilling debut novel blends spellbinding history with harrowing storytelling for a truly haunting reading experience.”

My Thoughts: Perhaps it is a coincidence simply due to my reading choices lately or a heightened awareness of the topic in general, but there is an abundance of books lately discussing women’s roles past and present, how intelligent and independent women were viewed and in some regards continue to be viewed by general society. Whatever it is, I am thoroughly enjoying the chance to learn more and adding fuel to my renewed feminism. While The Witchfinder’s Sister does not have such a woman as the main character, it does detail how the real-life Witchfinder went about terrorizing women for a few years in the mid-seventeenth century. Even though no one is hunting down modern “witches” to torture them into confessing their sins, the hatred towards women exhibited by the men in the novel is something to which all women today can relate.

Ms. Underdown admits in her Author’s Note that there was a lot of license she had to take with the details because there is not much known about Matthew Hopkins. This could be problematic for the story, but she does a tremendous job of incorporating painstaking research into her novel and credibly blending fact with fiction. She also recognizes those areas she added in her notes so that readers understand exactly what she added and her reasons for doing so. When fact is stranger than fiction like in this scenario, knowing such delineations is useful and interesting.

While Matthew Hopkins’ reasons for hunting and killing witches are only a supposition, Ms. Underdown provides a great example of how hatred and disgust at the female body, as well as fear, cowardice, and a lust for power, contributed to witch hunts. In fact, it takes no great stretch of the imagination to view Matthew as a symbol for all of the hunters throughout history. His disgust with the female reproductive system and female lust is every man’s discomfort at menstruation and sexually forward women. His lust for power is the glass ceiling and ongoing misogyny that continue to view women as inferior and limit them in their roles. The witch hunts of today may not involving watching and swimming, but they provide similar results in making women’s health a taboo subject and making it virtually impossible for a woman to become president under today’s conditions.

The Witchfinder’s Sister is an interesting story but not without its demerits. Alice is a surprisingly weak character, not in development but in personality. She is meek whereas the women who most influenced her life were strong. She is hesitant to offend and spends much of her time lamenting her inability to influence her brother for the better. There is no concern of her being mistaken for a witch because she spends a majority of her time hiding in her room rather than taking action. It is her frustrating lack of inaction and propensity for wishful thinking that strikes the reader as out of place in this novel where the hunting of strong, active women plays such a strong role.

In spite of its negatives, The Witchfinder’s Sister is enjoyable with its glimpse into a little-known part of history. The timing of the story’s release, as women face ever increasing concerns about reproductive health care access as well as an ongoing dialogue about feminism and women’s roles in society, may be a coincidence or else it is brilliant marketing by the publisher. Either way, readers can relate to Alice and to Matthew’s victims in a way they may not have done a year ago, and it is easy to recognize in Matthew the sanctimony of today’s current American administration. It may be dismaying to realize that women have been persecuted for the same reasons for hundreds of years, but there is comfort in the fact that we continue to survive and thrive in spite of such persecution. We might have a long way to go to stamp out such witch hunts, but being aware of the various forms they take, past and present, is one weapon in our arsenal to continue to battle against them.

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