Holmstrom’s novel (Leaving Berlin, 2011, etc.) is a well-researched, riveting tale of witchcraft and hysteria.
Maig Bannatyne arrives in the small Scottish village of Sauchiedale on a bitterly cold night in 1604. She’s a pregnant widow and skilled brewer of ales who is searching for her late husband’s family. And though she does not find the family she seeks, Maig is welcomed by laird Edward Gibb, and she makes her home on his estate. Maig’s daughter Elspeth forms a unique bond with Gibb’s youngest son, Enoch, as she learns to read, write and study the Bible alongside the boy. While Enoch moves on to higher education and the ministry, Elspeth follows in her mother’s footsteps, also becoming a skilled and respected “brewster.” Eventually, Elspeth settles down with a family, and Enoch returns home to lead the parish of Sauchiedale. The story of Elspeth and Enoch provides a window into broader events of 17th-century Scotland, a period wracked with extreme weather leading to famine and widespread death. In an era of superstition and fear, uneducated people turn to hysteria as they search for the source of their suffering. There are mass trials and burnings of witches, and reasonable and caring neighbors accuse each other and blame the devil for their misery. Elspeth and Enoch continue to cross paths as Elspeth seeks answers to the mystery of God, suffering and loss, in a thoroughly researched historical novel with an engaging narrative form. The author lays the groundwork beautifully for her story, introducing well-rounded characters and crisp, realistic dialogue. She draws readers into the story and the minds of her characters, using a series of journal entries to reveal the remote, repressed mind of Enoch. By the end, the transition of the villagers from a tightknit group of neighbors to an accusatory and hysterical mob seems a forgone conclusion.
A solid contribution to a popular genre, this novel skillfully brings history to life.