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The Last Witchfinder: A Novel Hardcover – March 14, 2006

4.4 out of 5 stars 40 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Nine years in the making, Morrow's richly detailed, cerebral tale of rationality versus superstitious bigotry is set in late-17th-century London and colonial New England, a time when everyday actions were judged according to the rigid Parliamentary Witchcraft Act and suspect women were persecuted for alleged acts of sorcery. Inquisitive, "kinetic" Jennet Stearne, daughter of militant Witchfinder Gen. Walter Stearne, witnesses this pursuit of "Satanists" up close when her beloved maternal Aunt Isobel Mowbray, a philosopher and scientist, is put on trial and burned at the stake for her progressive ideas. Thirteen-year-old Jennet and her younger brother, Dunstan, immigrate with their now-infamous father to Massachusetts, where Walter (disgraced in England for executing his propertied sister-in-law) puts his "witchfinding" expertise into savage overdrive at the Salem witch trials. Abducted in a raid, Jennet spends seven years captive to the Algonquin Nimacook, until she's freed by and married to Boston postmaster Tobias Crompton. Years later, after a divorce (!), she becomes smitten (and enlightened) by a young Benjamin Franklin. For a metafictional touch to this intrepid, impeccably researched epic (after Blameless in Abaddon), Newton's Principia Mathematica speaks intermittently, its jaunty historical and critical commentary knitted cleverly into the narrative. This tour-de-force of early America bears a buoyant humor to lighten its macabre load. (Mar.)
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From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–England in the late 17th century is an exciting–if dangerous–home for Jennet Stearne, a teen whose family is a microcosm of the country's philosophical and religious conflicts. Though she is enthralled by Isaac Newton's theories and her progressive Aunt Isobel's scientific experiments, she also takes pride in her father, Walter, who is a highly regarded professional witch-hunter. Jennet's filial piety and belief system are overturned abruptly when blameless Isobel is burned at the stake because Walter labels her a witch. The girl vows to prevent other unjust executions by using science to prove witchcraft nonexistent. Her stubborn quest goes on for decades, leading her into wild adventures that include being captured by pirates, becoming an adoptive Native American, witnessing the Salem witch craze, and carrying on an affair with the young Ben Franklin. Jennet and her companions dash through an energetic narrative that re-creates the period believably, thanks to the author's admirable linguistic and historical research. While the protagonist is an appealing character, the real star is Newton's Principia Mathematica, whose amusing commentary provides a new twist to notions about the power and endurance of the printed word. This is a clever literary fantasy costumed as a traditional historical novel and a treat for fiction lovers.–Starr E. Smith, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow (March 14, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060821795
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060821791
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,098,791 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Born in 1947, James Morrow has been writing fiction ever since, as a seven-year-old living in the Philadelphia suburbs, he dictated "The Story of the Dog Family" to his mother, who dutifully typed it up and bound the pages with yarn. This three-page, six-chapter fantasy is still in the author's private archives. Upon reaching adulthood, Morrow produced nine novels of speculative fiction, including the critically acclaimed Godhead Trilogy. He has won the World Fantasy Award (for Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah), the Nebula Award (for "Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge" and the novella City of Truth), and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award (for the novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima). A full-time fiction writer, Morrow makes his home in State College, Pennsylvania, with his wife, his son, an enigmatic sheepdog, and a loopy beagle.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Shipwrecks, kidnappings, witch trials, illegitimate children, jars full of deformed creatures, humorous night-time encounters with Isaac Newton -- what's not to like? The Last Witchfinder covers thousands of miles in space and decades in time, deftly considers slavery, electricity, the spread of the Enlightenment and the battle between reason and science, and wraps it all up in a story that made me stay up late several nights in succession. I'd never read a word by Morrow before this book, and if the rest of his novels are like this one I'm going to read them all.
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Format: Hardcover
First of all, let may share my shock that there are not hundreds of Amazon reviews singing the praises of this delightful book to the heavens.

For anyone unfamiliar with James Morrow's wildly inventive mind, the opening chapters of THE LAST WITCHFINDER are an audacious revelation. Such brio! Such wit! And with his novel's frankly amazing conceit (it sounds ridiculous when synopsized, but basically, books can write books), I, jaded reader that I am, will confess to being a bit enraptured with this tome.

While no writer, Morrow included, could possibly have kept up the astounding level of quality of his opening, THE LAST WITCHFINDER still stands as a paragon of whimsical and instructive historical fiction. I have no interest in reprising its plot; in fact, I am still in a bit of a funk at the injustice of this book seemingly garnering so little attention.

I'm clutching at straws, but this may be a by-product of the book's cover (too drab?) or its seeming Puritanically-minded topic. Rest assured that not only is this novel top-notch literary entertainment, it is also a series of enlightening and amusing discussions on the nature of science, religion, democratic republics, culture, and, well, I think you get the idea.

And I can't recommend it any more highly than that. Thank you, James Morrow.
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Format: Hardcover
James Morrow's The Last Witchfinder is many things at once. It's both a wonderfully researched and detailed historical novel and a great adventure story. It combines philosophy, theology, and science with Indian raids, shipwrecks, and pirates. It mixes extremely touching moments, some very sad moments, and moments of wit and humor. And it combines a narrative style fitting the time of the story - the late 1600s and early 1700s - with the postmodern conceit of having the book purport to be written by another book (complete with interludes of the book - Newton's Principia - addressing the audience).

Jennet Stearne is the daughter of a witchfinder in England. Her brother wants to follow in her father's footsteps, but she is of a more scientific bent. Under the tutelage of her aunt, she takes in an interest in all forms of natural philosophy - astronomy, physics, biology, and so on - and develops a good scientific mind. But when her aunt is accused and then condemned for witchcraft, Jennet dedicates her life to one thing: scientifically proving that the world isn't controlled by demons but rather by natural forces.

Jennet tries to recruit Isaac Newton, only to be tricked by Robert Hooke, masquerading as Newton. She decides to pursue her studies on her own, but things change when her father is sent to America. A series of adventures follow, in which Jennet witnesses the Salem Witch Trials (strengthening her resolve), is kidnapped by Indians and becomes part of tribe, escapes, meets Ben Franklin, eventually meets Newton himself, is shipwrecked, faces pirates, and is eventually herself tried for witchcraft. At the same time, her brother ascends to the post of witchfinder general for Massachusetts and marries the most hysterical accuser from the Salem trials.
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1 Comment 24 of 26 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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By A Customer on March 17, 2006
Format: Hardcover
When curious Jennet Stearne was a preadolescent her beloved Aunt Isobel Mowbray encouraged scientific learning in her niece and nephew Dunstan; on the other hand Jennet's father General Walter Stearne was a zealous witchfinder, who severely applied the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act of 1604 to anyone behaving "peculiar" including inquisitive female scientists who happen to be his sister-in-law. When the thirteen years old Jennet watched the burning of her aunt at the stake as a witch, she knew better and vowed to see the ungodly injustice of that parliamentary act repealed.

However, Walter apparently crossed the line when he killed Isobel as she was gentry. Forced to leave England in disgrace, a still fanatical Walter takes his two children to Salem, Massachusetts to continue his life's work to the point that he ignores the abduction of Isabel by Algonquin Nimacook because he had trials to conduct. Boston postmaster Tobias Crompton eventually rescues Isobel and marries and divorces her. Her passion to end the witch trials hits a crescendo when her brother, a chip off the old block, prosecutes her as a witch; her defense provided by Baron de Montesquieu employs Newton's Principia Mathematica.

This terrific historical fiction novel brings to life the vast impact of the witchcraft trials in England and Massachusetts through the eyes of a heroine who chooses science over the mumbo jumbo of her father and brother. Isobel is courageous as she watches first hand the tragedy of her aunt and others, thrives even under Indian captivity, and ultimately risks her life to prove the nonsense of the witchfinders. James Morrow provides a strong tale of the late seventeenth century war between the enlightenment and the superstitious that seems so intelligently timed with politicians redesigning the same debate.

Harriet Klausner
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