Tuesday, May 9, 2017

ARC Review: The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown

Pub. Date:April 25, 2017
Publisher:Ballantine Books
Length:336 pages
Source:NetGalley

This is the second debut author I have read this week, and I very impressed by the new talent on the scene. Beth Underdown delivers a morbidly fascinating look at the witch hunt that occurred during England's Civil War told from the perspective of the fictional sister to the Witchhunter General, Matthew Hopkins. This idea of telling the story of a historical figure from the perspective of that person's sister/daughter/wife has been trending for the last year or more, and I have to say that I do enjoy this method of storytelling. It provides a fresh look at history interweaving fact and fiction in a way that keeps the reader engaged and interested.

Matthew Hopkins was a cold man, sullen and spoiled with a quiet and calculating manner. I think he would have utterly terrified me if I had lived during this time period, as he seemed to have an aura of questionable evil about him. I couldn't tell if he really believed in witches, or if his motives were purely for revenge and a dislike of women in general. Neverthless, it is believed that Hopkins was responsible for the death of over 300 "witches" from 1644-1646. The women he targeted were often old, widowed, physically disabled or mentally infirm - and he would torture them until they confessed to devilish deeds of their own, and also reported on other women in the area. Hopkins authored the book, The Discovery of Witches (1647) detailing his methods and manner of investigation.

Alice Hopkins is a sympathetic narrator, having lived a somewhat difficult life and experiencing great tragedy. She returns home to Matthew following the death of their mother and her husband, and discovers her once-loved brother is now terrorizing and killing women. While this was a dreary and depressing tale, it was one that captivated me and kept me reading late into the night (and certainly contributed to a few bad dreams). I was drawn into Alice's struggle to reconcile the brother she had known with this new persona whom she must thwart for the safety of the women of the time. The author did a good job at pulling you in to Alice's tale and making you feel the turmoil right along with her as the story unfolded.

While it was disturbing to know that some people believed in witches, and tortured women into confessing... I believe it is even more troubling to know that many people did not believe in witchcraft, yet reported on their friends, neighbors and family anyway out of meanness, spite, jealousy and greed. While this was the story of Alice and Matthew, I do wish the book would have delved a little more into the motivations of the accusers. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this story even though it was morose and macabre, and reflects a sad piece of ancestral history. 

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history, or is interested in the witch hunts of the past. It's a good book to read on a rainy day or when you are in the mood for a terrifying glimpse into our past. I voluntarily reviewed an advanced copy of this book that I received from the publisher, Ballantine.