Rivka Galchen’s Historical Novel Satirizes Moral Panic

By Rivka Galchen

Witch hunts have made a comeback in recent years. Or at least, politicians’ use of the phrase “witch hunt” has. Tweeted 84 times by former President Trump during the Mueller investigation alone, the term has by now been stripped of any real meaning, having more to do with delegitimizing accusations than with actually investigating the occult. Between that and Etsy merchandise bearing phrases like WE ARE THE GRANDDAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHES YOU COULD NOT BURN, it seems everyone nowadays can relate to those accused of witchcraft.

But of course, there was a time when there were literal witch hunts, and these upended society in the gravest way. In North America, we’re most familiar with the 1692 Salem witch trials, which have 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 biggest mass trials in European history, with an estimated 900 people executed in the Würzburg witch trials.

“Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch,” Rivka Galchen’s second novel after her acclaimed 2008 debut, “Atmospheric Disturbances,” throws us into the early 17th century in the German town of Leonberg, where everyone knows everyone and rumors of witchcraft abound. The town is on edge as witch hunts gain popularity across the Holy Roman Empire, just as the Thirty Years’ War is about to begin.

On a Tuesday in May 1615, Katharina Kepler — an illiterate widow known for being a suspiciously independent town busybody and for concocting odd herbal remedies — gets a knock on her door. Summoned to the governor’s residence, she is accused of being a witch, and more precisely of poisoning the wine of a woman named Ursula Reinbold. Katharina tells the reader that Ursula “has no children, looks like a comely werewolf,” and that the odds of acquittal are stacked against her. Her only allies are her children and her neighbor, legal guardian and scribe, Simon — an isolated widower with his own secrets, who develops a “sturdy and practical fellowship” with the protagonist. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Katharina (addressing Simon), Simon (explaining his relationship with Katharina, in case “someone were to interrogate me as to my motives or knowledge”) and the townspeople connected to the case, testifying before the court. Most of them fear Katharina and claim to have always known she was up to no good.

Katharina’s sections tell a very funny and witty account of a society coming undone because of moral panic, where a simple accusation can lead to an execution. Through her interactions with her children and her thoughts about the townspeople — in her head she nicknames the governor “the False Unicorn” and Ursula’s brother “the Cabbage” — she becomes an example of what can happen when a strong-minded woman forgoes tradition. The testimonies spell out the town’s suspicions: that Katharina is manlike in her out-and-aboutness, that she dresses in dark colors, that her glance can cause a stabbing pain in one’s leg, that she’s ridden a goat to its death and sickened other animals, among other general eccentricities.

Galchen expertly weaves together a story told from multiple perspectives, showing how easy it is for a mob mentality to take hold in a climate of fear and ignorance when a woman simply exists outside of the norm. But within the novel’s sharpest and most humorous moments, there’s a deep underlying sadness for an elderly woman reckoning with the loss in her life. Katharina’s fictional story reminds us of the thousands of real lives of men, women and children that have been lost to absurd cultural anxiety.

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