The Pendle witches’ story, retold as a passionate saga of female friendship and a cautionary tale of feuding within a superstitious community.
According to Bess Demdike’s definition, she’s not a witch because she uses her powers for good, not evil. Either way, in this latest version of a famous English historical episode, Sharratt (The Real Minerva, 2004, etc.) credits Bess with actual powers to charm and heal, courtesy of her familiar spirit Tibb, a shape-shifter linked to the leader of the fairy folk. The era is the late-16th and early-17th century, a time when the old Catholic faith is still being ruthlessly eradicated. The first portion of the text is narrated by widowed Bess, who describes how at age 50 she became “cunning,” able to heal a sick child via inherited herbal wisdom, common sense, Catholic blessings and some help from Tibb. Soon she and her daughter have a reputation for sorcery, a hanging offence, and later Bess shares her knowledge with friend Anne Whittle, a generosity she will regret when the two become enemies. Bess’s 17-year-old granddaughter Alizon takes over the story to describe the family’s downfall. Arrested, shaved, examined and tried, Bess dies in prison, while her daughter, granddaughter and some unfortunate neighbors are subsequently hanged.
Committed storytelling and visual detail mark this overlong but tightly wound historical.