The slowly starving villagers of
Tierkinddorf are getting desperate. It is the middle
of a bitterly cold winter following the second
summer in which there has been no harvest. Elderly
Gude Muller, sinking into dementia, knows that her
position in the house she and her husband Hensel
built is precarious now that it is ruled by her
daughter-in-law, Irmeltrud, who sees her as an
unnecessary mouth to feed; but at least she still
has the love of her son, Jost, and the companionship
of her old friend Kunne, the local healer.
Things take a turn for the worse when a fat Friar arrives clutching a well used copy of the medieval guide to identifying witches, The Witch's Hammer, and quickly and insidiously turns the villagers on one another in their efforts to root out the witches among them so the curse on the village can be lifted and the good times can return. Soon neighbor is turning on neighbor; and frail Gude finds herself barred from her house on one of the coldest nights of the year, left to wander in the woods where she encounters visions of her dead husband, rich banquets, the devil and witches.
Like Gude, the reader is not clear whether what she experiences is real, or not. Is she indeed a witch or just a good woman caught up in bad times? Whether witchcraft is real or not is simply not at issue here because, for the people of Tierkinddorf, it is undisputed fact. Mailman sets her characters' hearts and minds firmly in their milieu and, thankfully, avoids gifting any of them with a heightened morality centuries ahead of their time and education. She also avoids falling into the trap of presenting Christianity as the bad guy, overrunning the older, more benign ways. Granted, the Christian friar finds three people to burn; but the village, nominally Christian but rooted in pagan practice, finds its own, who is identified with rune sticks (which predate Christianity).
Mailman's interest in the topic of witch-hunts stems from the discovery that one of her ancestors, Mary Bliss Parsons, was accused of witchcraft at least twice in 17th century Massachusetts. Mailman is separated from her notoriously maligned ancestor by just eleven generations. At first glance this might cause the reader to marvel at how far our civilization has come in so short a time, but then one is checked by the realization that the braying mob of the witch-hunt era has never gone away - it just keeps its head down waiting for times of stress and the voice of authority to give it a new name and feed the flames once again.
This review was originally published in October 2007, and has been updated for the October 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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