With its catchy purple cover, and that bold statement — Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch — that serves as the title, Rivka Galchen’s (she/her) novel easily caught my eye at the used book sale. What about the title drew me? We live in an age during which some people attack facts as if they are opinions. In this case, the villagers in Galchen’s novel take opinions, theories, and logical leaps as fact. Of course, your mother is a witch. Duh. Everyone knows that, the title seems to announce. As if there are no other options.
Typically, I hate the synopsis that comes on a book because it’s either misleading or too vague. However, the synopsis of Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch is more succinct than I could put it:
The story begins in 1618, in the German duchy of Württemberg. Plague is spreading. The Thirty Years’ War has begun, and fear and suspicion are in the air throughout the Holy Roman Empire. In the small town of Leonberg, Katharina Kepler is accused of being a witch.
Katharina is an illiterate widow, known by her neighbors for her herbal remedies and the success of her children, including her eldest, Johannes, who is the Imperial Mathematician and renowned author of the laws of planetary motion. It’s enough to make anyone jealous, and Katharina has done herself no favors by being out and about and in everyone’s business.
So when the deranged and insipid Ursula Reinbold (or as Katharina calls her, the Werewolf) accuses Katharina of offering her a bitter, witchy drink that has made her ill, Katharina is in trouble. Her scientist son must turn his attention from the music of the spheres to the job of defending his mother. Facing the threat of financial ruin, torture, and even execution, Katharina tells her side of the story to her friend and next-door neighbor Simon, a reclusive widower imperiled by his own secrets.
I’ll start with the setting. I got a fair sense of what this place looked like when Galchen referenced people borrowing food stuffs and money from each other, or how one baker notoriously sold bread that weighed less that it was supposed to and kept getting fined. Katharina also travels long distances to get to her sons’ and daughter’s homes, so you get the sense of a time without automobiles. A simple cow is an extremely important commodity.
However, just reading the novel I was not aware of the historical markers listed in the synopsis: The Plague, Thirty Years’ War, or Holy Roman Empire concerns. That might be my fault for being ignorant of important dates. Also, given that our main character is an illiterate villager and her neighbor is practically a hermit, they lack exposure to the outside world, and anytime someone is sick (with the plague, maybe?), their death is blamed on Katharina having recently passed by.
Readers will get a good sense of how easily paranoia can spread. First, it starts simply, like someone got a pain in their leg this one time they saw Katharina (likely a Charley horse leg cramp). Or that so-and-so’s goat died. Or when Katharina offers an herb to help with a small ailment, clearly she was poisoning them with a witch’s brew. Then the rumors float around, each version more convoluted than the last.
Interestingly, Galchen includes fictionalized court documents from people who have come forward to testify about Katharina. Everything from they heard something that someone had heard decades ago, to just having a funny feeling about her. You get the sense that the court of the 1600’s was a hot mess of speculation and manipulation. What do I mean? The first person to formally accuse Katharina, a woman named Ursula, is hoping to get financial compensation. But as Katharina is sent to prison and guarded by two men who burn an excess of wood to keep themselves warm, which is all paid for by selling Katharina’s assests, Ursula and her husband realize that they’re not getting money if Katharina sits in jail. It’s what the kids these days call a “surprised Pikachu moment.”
Lastly, I’ll add that Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch has just a touch of Monty Python humor to it. Just a dryness that makes you say, “Whaaat.” Or, at least, that’s how I react to that sort of humor. For example, Katharina contemplates her feelings on death:
I’m not afraid of the dead as I used to be as a child. I’m eager to meet and see them. I’d like above all to see my father, to see the young man he was when I was a child. He thought well of me. I’ve lived so many years, Simon. Maybe you understand this feeling. Being alive at my age is like being woken from a grave and walking the earth to see the alien world of my descendants. I feel more at ease among the animals and, God forgive me, I don’t think it would be a punishment to have been born an animal. But not a horse.
Galchen’s novel is less plot-driven than I usually prefer, but Katharina’s wry observations and the bizarre court testimonies that capture the fear and suspicion involved in identifying a witch made for a satisfying read.
Interested in other books about witch trials? Check out The Witch Craft of Salem Village by Shirley Jackson
CW: child death off page