four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
By: 
James Morrow
user_rating: 
0

A-TheLastWitchfinderWhen your father is the Witchfinder General, busy searching for witches in 17th-century England, the voice of reason might seem faint. Luckily for Jennet Stearne, her Aunt Isobel is an advocate of the newfangled scientific method and is having increasing difficulty believing that witches actually exist. Aunt Isobel’s skepticism soon draws the attention of Jennet’s father. He promptly declares Aunt Isobel a witch, which sets off an episodic adventure that finds Jennet transported to the American colonies in the heat of the Salem witch trials. She falls in with an Indian tribe, a postmaster, and Benjamin Franklin, all the while doing her best to uphold the banner of rationality. The strangest part of all? Jennet’s story is narrated by a book, Newton’s Principia Mathematica.
Morrow. 544 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0060821795

Denver Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"While it may read like a collaboration between Charles Dickens and Henry Fielding, there is at least one stylistic affectation and plenty of modern-day musing about advanced sciences to suggest strong influence from writers like William Gibson or cutting-edge scientists such as David Duetch and Wolfgang Ketterle. … Morrow’s morality tale couldn’t be better timed, considering events in today’s world." Dorman T. Shindler

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Last Witchfinder flies us back to that thrilling period when scientific rationalism was dropped into the great cauldron of intellectual history, boiling with prejudice, tradition, piety and fear. The result is a fantastical story mixed so cunningly with real-life details that your vision of America’s past may never awaken from Morrow’s spell." Ron Charles

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Here are storytelling, showmanship, and provocative book-club bait (try finding another recent novel that rivals this one for erudite talking points), all rolled into one inventive feat." Janet Maslin

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Morrow uses Jennet’s life span to describe a time when revolutionary ideas about freedom and nature were clashing with ancient beliefs about God and man’s place on Earth. … Morrow injects humor and detail, but to enjoy this novel, you need a real appetite for the history of science." Carol Memmott

Dallas Morning News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The Last Witchfinder is a novel, not a treatise or an episode of Mr. Science. It is narrated by a talking contrivance and is motivated not by characters’ needs but by Principia’s somewhat abstract crusade against the murderous application of religious faith." Jerome Weeks

Critical Summary

The Last Witchfinder proves to be an entertaining inquiry into a pivotal moment in 17th-century English and American history. After Morrow’s Godhead Trilogy (Towing Jehovah, Blameless in Abaddon, and The Eternal Footman) chronicled the difficult task of putting the great deity to rest, enlisting Newton’s treatise as a narrator seems like child’s play. The author labored nine years on The Last Witchfinder, and critics agree that it was time well spent. Navigating the very narrow path through scholarship and entertainment, Morrow wears his erudition "audaciously well" (New York Times) while creating a main character so vivid that The Washington Post wonders where her grave is. James Morrow has borne the speculative-fiction mantle for some time now, but many reviewers feel this book, even with its scientific focus, might be the author’s ticket to the mainstream best seller lists.

Also by the Author

Towing Jehovah (1994): In this comic odyssey, an unemployed oil tanker captain responsible for a major oil spill is asked to reassume command of his ship for a special mission. God has died, and his/her two-mile-long body needs to be towed to an Arctic cave for burial. Such a journey turns out to be quite complicated.