Dominating this wide-ranging historical adventure novel is the campaign by one woman to end witch hunts in England and its North American colonies.
Clever little Jennet Stearne. While her father Walter, self-appointed Witchfinder-General, is away on the warpath in eastern England in 1688, the 11-year-old is absorbing Newtonian science from her scholarly Aunt Isobel. When Walter, acting on a complaint, targets Isobel herself, gutsy Jennet travels to Cambridge to enlist Isaac Newton’s help. Everything goes wrong, first comically, then horribly, for Isobel is burned at the stake, but not before enjoining Jennet to publish a work that will demolish the medieval text (Malleus Maleficarum) that empowered witchfinders and presaged the 1604 Parliamentary Witchcraft Act. Walter has overreached by targeting Isobel, a woman of property, and is exiled to the colonies, along with Jennet and her younger brother Dunstan. Massachusetts is fertile ground for witchfinders; the notorious Salem trials are starting and Dunstan will eventually marry Abigail Williams, that hysterical young accuser. Before Jennet can flee her appalling father and brother, she is abducted by Indians. There follows a pleasantly pastoral time-out before she is rescued by a mailman on horseback. Their consequent marriage fails when their child almost drowns (Jennet was engrossed in Newton). The rollercoaster continues. In Philadelphia, she meets Benjamin Franklin; they become lovers, despite their considerable age difference. They travel to London and meet Newton. Returning home, they are shipwrecked on a Caribbean island. It is here that Nature prompts Jennet’s epiphany, her “demon disproof”; her influential treatise is published by Franklin. Fortune’s wheel turns some more (Jennet engineers her own trial as a witch, big mistake) before witchfinding runs its course and that dreadful statute is repealed.
Morrow’s latest (he’s perhaps best known for The Godhead Trilogy) is commendably ambitious, but this intensely cerebral extravaganza doesn’t really work; Jennet is more a talking head than a fully formed character, and Morrow’s prose, cobwebbed with archaisms, is no help.