Based upon records of the court clerk from an actual witch trial in Lancaster, England, in 1613, Mary Sharratt's latest novel, "Daughters of the Witching Hill," is not a happy tale. It is the story of three generations of women, though primarily it is about a grandmother and her granddaughter, who share a special bond.
Bess Southerns, or Demdike, as she is known, describes in detail how she came to be a "cunning" woman -- that is, a healer or a blesser. She talks of her familiar, Tibb, and of her knowledge of spells and herbs. She tries to teach these old ways to her daughter, but her daughter rejects the path.
Then we meet Alizon Device, Bess' granddaughter, who also carries the gift, though she thinks of it as a curse. Through a fresh set of eyes we see the practical side of the Reformation as age-old customs of blended church and pagan belief are replaced with a rigid culture of no gray areas, no saints and little celebration of any kind.
Full of the reality of the day, this story is stark and real, but Minnesota native Sharratt's descriptions of landscape and the daily life of the poor at this time are rich enough to feed the senses. The author weaves this vast canvas of changing culture into the personal stories of these women, and in the process transports us to a distant land, a distant time -- and deep into the story of people we sympathize with and care about.