Rivka Galchen’s historical novel satirizes moral terror

everyone knows your mom is a witch
by Rivka Galchen

In recent years witch hunts have made a comeback. Or at least, politicians have used the phrase “witch hunt”. Tweeted 84 times by former President Trump during the Mueller investigation alone, the term has so far been stripped of any real meaning, having more to do with the quashing of the charges than actually the covert investigation. Between that and the Etsy merchandise phrase like we’re the granddaughters of witches you can’t burn, it seems like everyone accused of witchcraft can relate to these days.

But of course, there was a time when there were literal witch hunts, and these upended society in the most serious way possible. In North America, we’re most familiar with the 1692 Salem Witch trials, which turned northeastern Massachusetts into a popular and spooky tourist destination. But between 1625 and 1631, under the Catholic Prince-Bishopric of Würzburg, the Holy Roman Empire saw one of the largest mass trials in European history, with an estimated 900 people executed in the Würzburg witch trials.

“Everybody Knows Your Mother Is a Witch,” Rivka Galchen’s second novel after her 2008 debut “Atmospheric Disturbance,” throws us in the early 17th-century German city of Leonberg, where everyone knows everyone. And rumors of witchcraft abound. As the Thirty Years’ War is about to begin, the city is on edge as the popularity of witch hunts grows in the Holy Roman Empire.

On a Tuesday in May 1615, Katharina Kepler—an illiterate widow known for being engaged in a suspiciously free town and making strange herbal remedies—knocks at his door. Called to the governor’s residence, he is accused of being a witch, and more accurately of poisoning the wine of a woman named Ursula Reinbold. Katharina tells the reader that Ursula “has no children, looks like a beautiful werewolf,” and that the prospect of acquittal is stacked against her. Her only allies are her children and her neighbour, the legal guardian and scribe, Simon – an isolated widower with secrets of her own, who develops a “strong and practical association” with the protagonist. The story is told from the alternate perspectives of Katharina (addressing Simon), Simon (explaining his relationship with Katharina, “someone had to question me as to my motives or knowledge”) and the townspeople involved with the case. . Court. Most of them are afraid of Katharina and claim that she always knew she was no good.

Katharina’s Classes tells a very funny and witty story about a society being undone by moral panic, where a simple charge can lead to a gallows. Through her interactions with her children and her thoughts about the townspeople – in her head she bears the nickname of the governor “The False Unicorn” and Ursula’s brother “The Cabbage” – she becomes an example of what happens when a strong What can happen if a woman with brains abandons tradition. The testimony speaks to the city’s suspicions: that Katharina is masculine in her outward appearance, that she dresses in dark colours, that her gaze can cause severe pain in one’s leg, that she has ridden a goat to her death. and have sickened other animals, among other common singularities.

Galchen skillfully weaves together a story told from multiple perspectives, showing how easy it is for the mob mentality to get caught up in an atmosphere of fear and ignorance when a woman is simply out of the norm. But in the novel’s sharpest and most humorous moments, there is a deeply underlying sadness for an elderly woman who is contemplating the loss in her life. Katharina’s fictional story reminds us of the thousands of real-life men, women, and children lost in absurd cultural anxiety.

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