36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on April 28, 2006
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.
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 2007
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.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on June 20, 2006
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. It's a remarkable sequence, combining as it does such great adventure with a serious examination of the issues involving faith, fundamentalism, and basic world views.
Morrow came to Pittsburgh a while back and read from The Last Witchfinder. When he did, he talked about how one of the things that got him thinking about the book was something he'd read (sorry, I don't remember the author) which stated that, if you look at the Renaissance, it's not best viewed as a time of a great explosion of reason but rather as a demon-obsessed time. Most everyone viewed the world as being strongly influenced by demons and spirits. Common natural phenomena were thought to be under the control of such invisible forces. Moreover, human beings were thought to traffic with Satan and be able to direct these demons. Someone's milk has gone sour? Well, he can remember when, two weeks earlier, he sold somewhat bad grain to the old woman up the road. She must be a witch who was getting back at him; how else explain the bad milk.
Witch finding was rationalized. The witchfineders used logic, arguing from a few lines in the bible, to build a huge rationale for what they were doing as well as a series of tests to prove that someone was a witch. The tests seem utterly nonsensical to us, but they were taken very seriously and more so considered completely rational by those who used them. The result was carnage over parts of Europe, with possibly several hundred thousand people killed over several centuries. (It was far worse in Central and Eastern Europe than it ever got in Western Europe or England.) Morrow does a good job of working these details into the novel.
The real heart of the novel though is the character of Jennet Stearne. She's a remarkably well drawn and interesting character (as well as the type of person many of us would like to know). She's smart, resourceful, brave, and never dull. I'm not sure if the comparison quite holds, but she in some ways can be viewed as a Heinlein "competent man" (in which case her aunt also fits in Heinleinesqe sort of way).
While Morrow clearly takes aim at the witchfinders and those who believe the world is under the control of demons, it's not the same sort of biting satire as in his novels like Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah. He skewers them in a much more straightforward way, simply by showing their world views and actions. At the same time, he makes it clear that it's not religion he's attacking - it's fanaticism. Many of the characters we side with in the book are religious - they're just not fanatic fundamentalists.
That's not to say that book doesn't have moments of humor. It has a number of quite amusing moments, ranging from Jennet's dealing with the book left to her by her aunt (a sex manual her aunt had written) to her and Ben's encounter with the pirates. (The head pirate, discovering them shipwrecked on an island and finding out that Ben is a printer, immediately says "I have this manuscript ...") And the scene where Jennet and Ben first make love is a classic.
As I noted earlier, Morrow structures the book as having been written by the Principia. I wasn't sure what to make of this at first - was it an addition or an unnecessary distraction. At first, I was leaning toward the latter, but as the novel progressed, it became clear that this technique was a novel way to allow both for info dumps and for some degree of editorializing without actually injecting this into the main novel. The Principia, for example, interrupts the novel to provide a couple of pages on the history of witch finding. So, in the end, I think these interruptions mostly worked (though a few could have been trimmed back a bit).
In the end, this is a fine novel that works well on a number of levels and should be of interest to those who like historical, those interested in the birth of the scientific worldview, or even those who just want a good adventure story, since it's all of these and more.
26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
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.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on May 21, 2007
This book starts great, but somewhere in the middle it starts to get too implausible. The heroine watches her aunt executed for witch craft, then after crossing to America gets abducted in a Indian raid, becomes an Indian wife, escapes, get shipwrecked on a desert island & meets a utopian colony of runaway slaves w/ Ben Franklin, is rescued by pirates, uses herself as bait in a witch hunt, and so on. I know it's fiction, but there is just too much packed into the storyline for it to really feel right as a whole. This is why the book lost one star.
Also, I found the literary device of having a book narrate a book as annoying and gimicky. This struck me as a ploy that a new writer would try to make their book "different" James Morrow's writing skills don't need to be packaged this way to hold a reader's attention. I found that the sections where the book was "talking" directly to the reader to be distracting, which dropped my rating of the book by another star.
The writing style, language, and attention to detail are all good. The level of writing is more intelligent than the average novel published today. I grew up in Philadelphia & found all of the local references interesting & fun (and accurate).
If you like historical fiction and books that make you think, you'll probably enjoy this one, but maybe not love it. If nothing else it can add somevariety to your reading diet.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2006
"The Last Witchfinder" is an ambitious and ultimately satisfying departure from Morrow's earlier "Towing Jehovah" series, usually classified as a science fiction or fantasy novel, but actually more of a classic farce. The whimsical alternative universe that the Reader is transported to this time is England and the colonies during the Salem witchcraft trials and their aftermath. The book is rich in details from this period, with Morrow's indomitable female heroine sharing adventures with historical figures such as Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin, who are both central figures in the main narrative.
The book jacket compares "The Last Witchfinder" favorably with Barth and Pynchon's forays into historical fiction. While not a totally apt characterization, it does seem likely that fans of "The Sot-weed Factor" and "Mason and Dixon" would enjoy this whimsical novel as well. "The Last Witchfinder" is tighter than those sprawling books, much more readily digested, and significantly less pretentious.
The one major literary pretention Morrow does succumb to is the conceit that the book you are reading is authored by Newton's "Principia Mathematica", apparently a sentient being of some sort. This overly-elaborate, post-modern, literary device is only semi-successful, but it does allow Morrow to spice the narrative with some interesting digressions along the way.
A better comparison may be to either "Little Big Man" or "The Cider House Rules", but I do think "The Last Witchfinder" suffers up against those two examplary novels. It lacks the bite of the former and the impact of the latter.
Overall, this is a book that should boost Morrow's status as a serious, literary novelist, without losing too many of the fans he acquired from his earlier books.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2007
James Morrow never ceases to astound me.
A self-admitted agnostic, he's written novels of the "death" of God and it's effect on humanity (Towing Jehovah); ghosts of the unborn putting the survivors of total nuclear war on trial (This Is The Way The World Ends); and now, a novel of religous zealotry and ignorance in colonial America. Further, Morrow does this with humour, wisdom and a deep compassion that proves secular humanism to be the match of any other belief.
Our heroine, Jennet Stearne, raised in England by her brilliant and eccentric aunt to be intellectually curious in the tradition of the enlightenment, finds herself in the American colonies and, in the course of her long and eventful life, is kidnapped by indians, willingly fights accusations of being a witch, falls in love with a young Ben Franklin and all the while Newton's "Principia Mathematica" narrates the tale and, in sly asides, argues and wars with other books! In the hands of a lesser novelist this mix could be lethal or ridiculous. James Morrow is not a lesser novelist. He brings the atmosphere of the times and places to vivid life, creates three dimensional characters and, with a light touch, scores a massive direct hit against willful ignorance, opportunism and superstition. It is a timeless lesson of the dangers of passivity in the face of intolerance and tyrannical authority.
I don't beleive that a blow by blow of this novel would do justice to it nor to me, so i'll say only one more thing: miss this magnificent novel at your own peril.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 15, 2007
THE LAST WITCHFINDER is a remarkable book. At its core lies an impassioned defense of reason as well as a very articulate assault on superstition and its potential for intolerance and abuse. But Morrow is far too clever to simply stack the deck. He illustrates how the dangers of arrogance and close-mindedness and jealousy can be employed for the worst possible reasons by a scientist as well as witchfinder (as someone with more than one family member who has suffered at the hands of the arrogance and ignorance perpetuated by some in the medical and pharmaceutical community I appreciate his even-handedness and honesty). Beyond the central notions that drive the story, Morrow has woven a wonderful plot, filled with rich characters. He has clearly researched the history of the period and employs real persons and events with great success. The passages in the book that deal with a character's abduction and subsequent adoption by Native Americans were particularly compelling. Reading this account of an English person's slow morph into aboriginal culture was extraordinarily inisghtful and evocative. But then, with Morrow, the reader is dealing with a master of language. He never hesitates to find the best a sentence has to offer. Reading his words is akin to listening to a great symphony played to perfection by a gifted orchestra. The Last Witchfinder is a work of genius.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Give James Morrow high marks for originality in "The Last Witchfinder", a gregarious, rollicking, swashbuckling (do women swashbuckle?), satirical and, at its core, enlightening tale of those pious, dour soles who persecuted witches and warlocks in 17th and 18th century England and her American colonies. It is the adventures of Jennet Stearne, the bright and daring fictional young women who, after seeing her beloved aunt and tutor burned at the stake by her "witchfinder" father, vows to end this barbaric and misguided practice through science and natural law.
It is also the first book I've ever read that is narrated by another, um, "book" - specifically Sir Isaac Newton's "Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy", the landmark tome that set the foundation for about three centuries of physics. But if the concept of a book writing a book turns you off, hang on a minute - it actually works - a clever means of providing historical and future context in science, culture, religion, and politics. As well as an outlet for some wry wit and Twain-like cynicism and editorial comment.
Morrow's story takes a far more ambitious course that a simple expose of the lunacy behind the state-sanctioned crusade to rid the world of those accused of consort with the devil. That's been done before - and more thoroughly - but never with Morrow's dry humor and keen insight. Instead, the author also takes the reader - and his heroine - through Indian raids and Indian captivity, shipwreck on a deserted Caribbean island, child births and untimely child deaths, and a full plate of historical fact, trivia, and fantasy, much of it centered whimsically around a young Ben Franklin and his illegitimate son, William. What - Ben Franklin? Did I mention the scope is ambitious? By comparison, the tedious adventures of Frazier's "Thirteen Moons" play like a Disney cartoon.
Morrow's prose soars and stalls, moving at a breakneck pace through some chapters, while bogging down in repetitive drivel in others. Yet this rambling freehand and untamed verse creates a rhythm and style of its own, lending enough frivolity to take the edge off topics that range from mathematically dull to grotesquely lurid. And while Morrow certainly doesn't pretend to answer missing chunks of the brilliant and enigmatic Ben Franklin's life with scholarly thesis, his fictional relationship with our Jennet is entertaining, and hopefully doesn't have old Ben spinning too rapidly in his Philadelphia grave.
Ultimately, an epic yarn that bends and stretches and tests the bounds of credibility in many places along the way, but wraps with a punch that is fulfilling and even suspenseful, capped by a closing that is poignant and satisfying. American history has rarely been so cannily wrought - "The Last Witchfinder" is in deed a rare find that deserves to be read.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 22, 2008
Morrow has always been great at satire and shows in TLW that he can do historical fiction just as well. Even with my expectations for a Morrow book being dashed as I read on and realized I wasn't meant to laugh as much as in previous works, by about 100 pages in I started to revel in the book's prose and purpose just as thoroughly as I've reveled in Morrow's previous works of satire.
A great thing about Morrow is that he has a clear purpose in writing his books. While you might suggest that every author has one as well, I can't say that they link a greater purpose with an interesting narrative in a syncretic fashion very often or very well. And with TLW I felt a clear a sense of meaning. This is a book with a purpose. And for a book with the conceit of being written by another book and making much of the evolutionary growth and connection of books, much like blocks of DNA in a sort of natural selection of thought, saying this one is worthy progeny of the best qualities and purposes of earlier works is probably the best compliment I can give it.
But i must also add that besides its themes Morrow deserves a lot of credit for utilizing a writing style that was a departure for him. Not only does he get away with it but he created a flowing narrative that was not only readable and more epic and rollicking than past works, he did so in what I found to be an addictive manner. The language and style he uses was compulsively readable in its ability to be direct, to invoke the era, and to find a poetic groove that was neither too arch, nor too trite for the subject matter.
One of the best books I've read in years.