Summary and book reviews of The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow

The Last Witchfinder

A Novel

By James Morrow

The Last Witchfinder
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2006,
    544 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2007,
    560 pages.

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Book Summary

From a writer who has been lauded as "an original -- stylistically ingenious, savagely funny, always unpredictable" (Philadelphia Inquirer) and "unerring" (San Diego Union-Tribune), who has been compared to Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Updike, a writer whose pen has given us a devastating lampoon of the nuclear-arms race and an audacious answer to the outrageous question "What if God had a daughter?" -- from this writer, the critically acclaimed James Morrow, comes a novel of history, adventure, science, sex, satire, absurdity, and philosophy.

Jennet Stearne's father hangs witches for a living in Restoration England. But when this precocious child witnesses the horrifying death of her beloved Aunt Isobel, unjustly executed as a sorceress, she makes it her life's mission to bring down the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act. A self-educated "natural philosopher," Jennet is inspired in her quest by a single sentence in a cryptic letter from Isaac Newton: It so happens that in the Investigations leading first to my Conjectures concerning Light and later to my System of the World, I fell upon a pretty Proof that Wicked Spirits enjoy no essential Existence. Armed with nothing but the power of reason and her memory of Isobel's love, Jennet cannot rest until she has put the last witchfinder out of business.

Abrim with picaresque adventures -- escapades that carry Jennet from King William's Britain to the fledgling American Colonies to an uncharted Caribbean island -- our heroine's search for justice entangles her variously in the machinations of the Salem Witch Court, the customs of her Algonquin Indian captors, the designs of a West Indies pirate band, and the bedsheets of her brilliant lover, the young Ben Franklin. Finally, in a reckless and courageous ploy, Jennet arranges to go on trial herself for sorcery, the only way she can defeat the witchfinders now and forever. Rich in detail, rollicking in style, and endlessly engaging, The Last Witchfinder is a tour de force of historical fiction.

Whose Father Hunts Witches,
Whose Aunt Seeks Wisdom,
and Whose Soul Desires
an Object
It Cannot Name

May I speak candidly, fleshling, one rational creature to another, myself a book and you a reader? Even if the literature of confession leaves you cold, even if you are among those who wish that Rousseau had never bared his soul and Augustine never mislaid his shame, you would do well to lend me a fraction of your life. I am Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, after all—in my native tongue, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the Principia for short—not some tenth-grade algebra text or guide to improving your golf swing. Attend my adventures and you may, Dame Fortune willing, begin to look upon the world anew.

Unlike you humans, a book always remembers its moment of conception. My father, the illustrious Isaac Newton, having abandoned his studies at Trinity College to escape the great plague of 1665, was spending the summer at his ...

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Introduction

The Last Witchfinder tells of one woman's heroic quest to overturn the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act of 1604. Set in Restoration England and the American provinces, James Morrow's historical epic is a meticulously researched and richly detailed narrative of sorcery, science, and the sea change from the witch-hunting era to the Age of Reason.

Jennet Stearne, the daughter of Witchfinder-General Walter Stearne, is quick-witted, sharp-tongued, and hungry for knowledge. Under the tutelage of her beloved Aunt Isobel, our heroine acquires a passion for "natural philosophy" and an abhorrence of her father's work. After witnessing Isobel's unjust execution as a witch, Jennet makes it her life's mission to ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
Author Blurb Neal Stephenson, author of The Baroque Cycle
A grand yarn about the clash of reason and superstition, set in a fascinating time.

Author Blurb Peter Straub, author of Ghost Story and Shadowland
Combining extravagant quantities of both warmth and brilliance, James Morrow's The Last Witchfinder should speak directly to everyone who loves the work of Neal Stephenson, John Barth, or Thomas Pynchon. But its wild humor, knock 'em dead pace, shining intelligence, and surpassing tenderness toward its characters ought to entice readers of every kind into its glorious big tent. With this book, James Morrow has broken through to a new and breathtaking mastery.

Author Blurb John Crowley, author of Lord Byron's Novel
Witty, scary, multifarious, and hilarious. The Last Witchfinder has the pitiless clarity of the age it pictures, leavened by Morrow’s smiling, humane historical imagination: like being tied to the stake and mercifully released. It will win James Morrow a wide readership, and should.

Kirkus Reviews

This intensely cerebral extravaganza doesn't really work... Morrow's prose, cobwebbed with archaisms, is no help.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This tour-de-force of early America bears a buoyant humor to lighten its macabre load.

Library Journal

Though similar to John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor in many respects, Witchfinder is warmer and more human. Strongly recommended.

Reader Reviews
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Beyond the Book

James Morrow describes himself as a 'scientific humanist'. His earlier works tend to question religious viewpoints, from organized religions all the way through to atheism. For example, in the first volume of his Godhead Trilogy, written in the 1990s, the 2-mile long corpse of God is discovered floating in the ocean and the Vatican dispatches a supertanker to tow the corpse to a tomb in the Arctic, meanwhile a group of atheist extremists plan on destroying the body, as it proves they were wrong. In the second volume, God's body is now part of a religious theme ...

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