Saturday, August 28, 2021

Review: Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch by Rivka Galchen

by Rivka Galchen
Release Date: June 8, 2021
2021 Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Kindle Edition; 288 Pages
ISBN: 978-0374280468
Audiobook: B08PW7GS24
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from publisher

2.5 / 5 Stars

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.
My Thoughts
Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch intrigued me because this was based on the true story of the mother of Johannes Kepler, and the trials and tribulations faced by the family when she was accused of witchcraft during the seventeenth century. While I know quite a bit about Kepler's contributions to the Scientific Revolution, I am always eager to read more about his mother so I was looking forward to an interesting story about intrigue and politics.  Plus, I thought the title was eye-catching. But the plot dragged and the way it was written kept the reader seriously detached from the characters and by the end I was relieved the book was finished.
My favourite parts of the books were the transcripts of the interviews with the various people from the village as well as some of the letters written to dispute, or to encourage, charges.  First of all, many of the transcripts were quite fascinating and allowed for an intriguing study of human nature and the goings-on of a small rural village during this time period.  Many of the petty squabbles that you would  think make up a village were evident, and I definitely enjoyed the thoughts behind why the villagers thought Katharina should be guilty, which ranged everywhere from the absurd to ones out of petty jealousy.  To the modern reader, the sarcasm behind these transcripts was quite evident, but done quite cleverly.  The letters were also interesting, and I especially liked the one listing the many reasons why Katharina was guilty.  I think there was something like forty reasons listed, some of them quite absurd to our way of thinking, but very relevant to the time period when certain scientific inquiry sent people to be burnt at the stake.   

The story though, while interesting, was a bit of a slog to read.  Unfortunately, the writing style made it difficult to empathize with the characters, and there were times I just wanted to wring Katharina's neck as she just didn't want to listen to anyone's advice.  I think the author was trying to show a woman ahead of her time period, especially with a son who was well-known, but she came across as silly and annoying at times.  I did like how she still looked at her son Hans (Johannes) as a little boy even though he was a famous mathematician by this point and even an imperial advisor. 

I get the book was written in this type of self-deprecating humour, but for me, it just didn't work.  The book was written as a type of journal: the main characters, Katharina, was illiterate, and her neighbour, Simon, wrote the journals for her.  I definitely enjoyed the thinking of the time period and could understand the humour and the irony when tackling a subject such as the witch trials simply because the reasons were absurd.  However, what happened to these women was serious and the fourteen months of imprisonment that Katharina suffered was glossed over: in fact, we learn of her financial difficulties through a letter written by the people who accused her as her jailors were burning too much fuel and wasting the money from her estate so there would be nothing left when she died. 
Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch is meant to have this dark, witty humour as Katharina Kepler is accused of being a witch and the story recounts the interviews with the villagers and goes to trial.  But the humour didn't quite work for me as it seemed to downplay the seriousness of what was happening, although the author did manage to show the absurdity of the situation quite well so the highlights were definitely the transcripts and the letters. However, I just didn't sympathize with any of the characters as the writing style kept you detached so it was difficult to empathize with their losses and situations.  If you are interested in Johannes Kepler and his mother, I do recommend this book (there is a LOT of information in it though and is not a light read) Kepler's Witch: An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of his Mother


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