Monday, September 5, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch by Rivka Galchen

Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch by Rivka Galchen is a quirky literary historical novel loosely based on a real-life witch hunt in Wurttemberg, Germany, in the early 1600s. 

I saw this novel while browsing in a bookstore on a recent vacation but didn’t buy it because I had too much to lug around. The urge to read it stuck with me though, and I was pleased to discover it in my local library.

The story is told by two people, Katharina Kepler, the accused witch, and her neighbor, Simon, who supports her defense, though rather reluctantly.


Katharina is an elderly woman, independent and crotchety, who has obtained some small standing in her little town. She owns a little property and a cow. Her husband ran off long ago, as did her youngest son, but she still has a son and daughter nearby who have done well. Also, her eldest son, Johannes, has done exceptionally well as a mathematician/astrologer/astronomer and was once the Imperial Mathematician. (This is the true-to-life part. The son is Johannes Kepler – known for his laws of planetary motion. And his mother really was imprisoned for witchcraft.)

So, people in town may be jealous of her. Or maybe they find her irritating–which she is. She tends to stick her nose in other people’s business. She gets along with some of her fellow townspeople but not with most. She has some odd ideas, but they probably are not all that odd for the time. (The author does a superb job dropping the reader into the early seventeenth century.) Whatever the case, after Katharina has a falling out with Ursala, her one-time friend, Ursala accuses Katharina of witchcraft. Then other villagers start recalling interactions with Katharina that were followed by misfortune, so they pile on with more accusations. The “evidence” is absurd. At first, Katharina tries to ignore it. But she is a querulous woman and her reactions compound the problem.

Her children (all grown) stand by her, but they, too, are exasperated by her at times.

Because she’s a woman, she needs a guardian if she’s questioned by authorities, so she ropes her neighbor Simon into helping her. Simon is a good man, a widower with a daughter. He likes to keep to himself. However, Katharina helped him out once and he feels he owes her. Plus, he believes she’s innocent. Plus, he knows what it’s like to feel falsely accused of something. So he stands by her but tries to do it quietly.

The case drags on for years. Katharina copes in a variety of different ways, some counterproductive. All the while, the town goes crazier, Katharina’s standing sinks lower, her possessions are leached away, and even her friends start backing away. The novel becomes more and more gripping as the noose tightens around her neck.

The novel is darkly comic. The voice pulls the reader in. The writing is wonderful. With this glimpse of a witch hunt of the past, we can see echoes in modern-day pettiness, stone-throwing, greed, and corruption as well as compassion, kindness, and forgiveness. (Plague and warfare play a role too, but a surprisingly minor one.)

3 comments:

  1. Now this does sound interesting... if a touch strange for it to be comic with such a serious subject.

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  2. Great review - and you made it sound very intriguing. I like something historical that isn't WWII so this may be worth checking out! visiting from hist.fic.challenge Terrie @ Bookshelf Journeys

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  3. Wow, what an interesting premise! I love that it combines the true story of her son, Johannes. Interesting too that you describe it as darkly comic of all things. Great review, I may need to read this one!

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