Bess Southerns, an impoverished widow lives with her children in a crumbling old tower in Pendle Forest. Drawing on Catholic ritual, medicinal herbs, and guidance from her spirit-friend Tibb, Bess heals the sick and foretells the future in exchange for food and drink. As she ages, she instructs her best friend, Anne, and her granddaughter, Alizon, in her craft. Though Anne ultimately turns to dark magic, Alizon intends to use her craft for good. But when a peddler suffers a stroke after exchanging harsh words with Alizon, a local magistrate tricks her into accusing her family and neighbors of witchcraft. Suspicion and paranoia reach frenzied heights as friends and loved ones turn on one another and the novel draws to an inevitable conclusion.
Many people know of the hysteria and events surrounding the Salem Witch Trials, but for those readers in England this novel predates those trials by 80 years and takes place in Pendle Lancashire. Until reading this, although I was aware of witch trials taking place in my homeland, I was not aware of how differently they were conducted to those in the Colonies.
This novel is told in the voices of the two main protagonists, both actual historical figures which adds weight and substance to them as the reader follows their story to its conclusion. As always when actual people are placed in fictional works some liberties are taken with them, but this in no way takes away from the book, in my opinion it just adds an extra dimension to what is in the pages. Through the eyes of the two women we can enter the world of the poor in the early 1600’s. As the reader journeys through their world with them, they are able to experience all the happiness and heart-break that came into their lives. Regardless of the poverty and hardship of the period, these are two strong women characters that, despite their lack of formal education, resonate with intelligence and compassion.
More than anything this excellently written book could be seen as a lesson in dominion. Catholicism has been forcibly replaced by the Protestant faith, but rather than have the enlightening effect intended it makes society become more superstitious and paranoid as their lives are now filled with contestant threats of damnation without the solace offered by the Catholic faith of that time. The extensive research the Author has so obviously done, not only on the witch trials but also on the ‘pulse’ of society at that time makes this an engaging retelling of the poor of the Pendle region, if not of the whole country.
I would highly recommend this novel to anyone with an interest in the subject matter, or who loves to read historical fiction. I would definitely read more by this Author.