On “Everyone knows your mother is a witch” by Rivka Galchen

IN HIS LAST NOVEL, Everyone knows your mother is a witch, Rivka Galchen reinvents a real witch hunt that took place in Leonberg, on the German lands of the Holy Roman Empire, in the 17th century. The accused: Katharina Kepler, mother of the famous astronomer Johannes. In his fictional retelling of a true story, Galchen carefully divides the difference between respecting Kepler’s life account and taking careful liberties to build the world around him. The novel begins with Katharina’s first-person narration of the charge that started it all, with a glazier’s wife Ursula Reinbold claiming that Katharina’s use of witchcraft is the cause of her pain. chronic. When the governor insists that Katharina reverse the spell, she declares that she “had done nothing to hurt Ursula and could not do anything to heal her”, and things quickly escalate.

It is then that Galchen embarks on a choral narrative, mixing different voices, perspectives and forms. This approach highlights the conflicting testimony and foamy rumors that have characterized Katharina’s trial from the start: Katharina is and is not responsible for Ursula’s chronic pain; she encouraged and did not encourage young women to make pacts with the devil; she was and was not heard sharing a healing spell with the mother of a sick child. Galchen leaves it to the reader to distinguish what she has taken from real documents and what is only fiction. The fact that it is impossible to do not only speaks to Galchen’s skillful ear for the historical voice, but also shows how the difference between truth and lie (or, in common terms, between “true” and “fake news”) has always been a point of contention.

The testimonies become more and more bizarre as the trial progresses and, in the end, Katharina was also accused of going through locked doors, putting a pig in the way of an apple cart and riding “a goat backwards”. Galchen is thorough in producing all the evidence against Katharina, most of it flimsy hearsay. The body of evidence is shown to illustrate a larger culture of fear and misinformation in the absence of scientific and medical knowledge – a situation that seems all too familiar today.

Galchen also considers the role that economic inequity and personal prejudice played in the continuation of the witch hunts. The choral quality of the novel doesn’t create a big world for Katharina so much as it sets the limits that a woman like herself faces: widow, wealthy, empowered, intelligent, and independent. As Katharina comes to the end of her life, the townspeople chatter endlessly and cast harsh judgments. Katharina’s approach to life is not only out of step with the tradition of the time, but also a reminder of this could be, if only economic barriers and social expectations weren’t so oppressive.

Moving from a chapter of interior observation to extracts from testimonials from city residents, Galchen creates a rhythm that maintains the engagement of an otherwise simple story. Like a witch-hunt story, Everyone knows your mother is a witch doesn’t cover entirely new ground – many readers might make immediate comparisons to Arthur Miller The crucible (1953). But in form and technique, Galchen’s choral approach elevates the novel and presents Katharina’s ordeal as a timeless example of how intelligent and independent women are routinely silenced and suppressed.

Galchen deliberately illustrates the complexities and contradictions of Katharina. Our protagonist is a bright, humorous and snobby busy person who indulges in the same kind of gossip that ultimately gets her jailed. She is cavalier when it comes to sharing her opinions, which often take the form of sharp jokes. But Galchen juxtaposes the less admirable aspects of her personality with a sense of lassitude towards the world and a tendency towards motherly caring, two traits that were shaped by the untimely deaths of three of her seven children (“I had watched my own infants die ”) and the disappearance of another child, Heinrich, who“ ran away to become a soldier ”at the age of 16. Heinrich “lived to adulthood, [but is] to heaven ”at the time of the trial; “Hans, Christoph and Greta are still there. “

Throughout the trial she appears outwardly calm and confident, but her narration reveals that she is still riddled with grief, remembering the time when Heinrich, who “had been away from Leonberg for some twenty-five years”, returned. , shortly before his death. “Suite of fevers and confusion”:

[W]hen Heinrich arrived at my door on a Friday afternoon, I was not surprised. I knew he was alive. I don’t have the words to explain it. The viper, born alone from its egg, knows how to catch its prey. It was like that. Heinrich’s coat was torn and unclean, it looked smaller, his face looked uneven. He was hungry. My heart was that of a spring sparrow.

Some of the novel’s most fascinating scenes are those in which Johannes (Hans) testifies in court. The reception of his testimony is shaped by the culture around him, in which religious authorities ruled and science was considered heretical. Before each session, he is asked: “Do you understand that any false witness that you give knowingly will provoke the great wrath of God in your earthly life and will deliver your soul to Satan when you die?” It is an almost ironic common joke, therefore antithetical to the work that Johannes develops outside the walls of the religious cabinet. But he’s not fazed by the questioning: Johannes clearly wants to go above and beyond for his mother, applying whatever resources he has – even the methodology he could use to develop his evidence and his theories – to help him. . He does his own investigative research with the townspeople and calls out all the favors he gets from people of influence. Meanwhile, Johannes is developing groundbreaking theories of celestial physics and planetary rotation – theories that directly contradict church beliefs. At one point, Katharina visits the Ducal Governor, who begins “to lecture on those who have taken their worldly power too seriously. [and] said the real realm of power was elsewhere. Listening to him express his opinion, Katharina is struck by the governor’s ignorance: “But he knew that some considered my son to be a heretic to the point of forbidding him to take communion in church.[.] […] Johannes had worldly power, but his power was like smoke – any strong wind would disperse him. “

Galchen posits that at the heart of Katharina’s predicament is jealousy of others, mainly caused by her despising their expectations. Towards the end of the novel, once Katharina has been imprisoned and shackled in a cell, socioeconomic envy turns out to be perhaps the primary motivation behind the accusations. Ursula Reinbold sends a letter to the governor, fearing that the high cost of Katharina’s imprisonment will affect monetary reparations for her victims:

The costs of Katharina Kepler’s imprisonment are paid from the proceeds from the sale of her assets. […] We are writing to you only because we want to draw your attention to what you already know, which is that compensation for the victims of this dangerous woman is payable from those same finished products from the sale of her property. Currently there are two guards who constantly watch Katharina, and she is further chained by her ankle to the wall, and although we agree and state that she is a danger, we argue that paying two guards night and day is not only superfluous but will also empty the coffers, making it impossible to adequately compensate victims.

Ultimately, Katharina is released from prison, but must move to her daughter’s house in nearby Heumaden, as Ursula and her cohort threaten to kill her if she stays in Leonberg. Here, Rivka Galchen takes her most obvious creative liberties. In fact, Katharina was acquitted after 14 months in police custody; she died six months after her release. In Everyone knows your mother is a witch, on the other hand, Katharina lives longer but expresses her displeasure at the new end of her story. She said to a friend, “I wouldn’t call it a happy ending[.] […] To have nothing to give to my children, to be unwanted in my own town. It is on this dark note that Galchen concludes. At first glance, this may seem like a soft landing for an author known for the wild and creative twists and turns of Atmospheric disturbances (2008) and American innovations (2014). But the absence of a resounding finale also gives this historical tale a refreshing realism, bridging the gap between the early 1600s and today.


Eric Farwell is Assistant Professor of English at Monmouth University and Ocean County College in New Jersey. His writing appeared in The writer’s chronicle, Squire, Salon, GQ, Slice (future), Plowshares, the Paris Daily Review, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Voice of the village, Vanity Show, The believer, and Guernica.

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