The cover and the title of this book got my attention, and then I read the blurb. Did you know that in 1618 Johannes Kepler’s mother was accused of being a witch? (Read more here, here and here). Yes, that Johannes Kepler, the mathematician and astronomer whose works were integral to the Scientific Revolution! Author Rivka Galchen, a medical doctor by training, took this fascinating piece of information and imagined the events surrounding Katharina Kepler’s denunciation and trial.
The novel is told from the points of view of Katharina Kepler, the accused, and her neighbor Simon, who acted as a friend and guardian for Katharina while under investigation. Simon is a fictional character but is based on a real neighbor of Kepler’s who performed the same services for her and eventually asked to be released from this duty. Author Galchen uses genuine correspondence from the time, historical fact and her own imagination to recreate the years-long investigation and trial of Katharina Kepler. It is worth noting that at the time of the trial, war was raging in Europe as was plague. Katharina’s son Hans (Johannes Kepler) was the Imperial Mathematician and court astrologer in Linz, and had himself been subjected to persecution for some of his ideas. His success might have given the Kepler name some status in his hometown Leonberg, where Katharina still lived, but it also might have been cause for some resentment. Leonberg was a small town where neighbors tended to know each other’s business and gossip about it, and resentments festered over time. Many families’ lives were touched by poverty, illness and sudden death even without the addition of war and plague. But if you could blame your bad luck on someone, you might be able to get some money in court. In this environment, a young woman named Ursula Reinhard, with the support of her family and the local governor, accused Katharina of poisoning her and making her unwell. Katharina, now in her 70s, was known for making healing potions. She and her other children were known in Leonberg. Katharina found the accusations against her ridiculous and didn’t take them seriously at first, but the Reinhards began encouraging other people to come forward and link Katharina to all manner of unfortunate incidents that had happened throughout their lifetimes. Galchen imagines depositions of these people and shows how far-fetched and absurd the accusations could be (she walked past my field and the pig died, she turned into a black bird to harm me, etc.). If only one person had accused her of witchcraft, it would not have been so terrible, but once a second person made the accusation, Katharina could be imprisoned and tortured into confession.
Katharina’s neighbor Simon is one of the few people besides her own children who tried to help Katharina. He oversaw her property and took care of her cow when she had to flee to live with Johannes. Simon, the baker Jerg and Katharina’s daughter Greta all have similar views of humanity and how to get along, how not to be a monster or see our neighbors as monsters. Simon sums it up this way:
I try my best to like people. To expect good from them. If you see someone as a monster, it is as good as attaching a horn to them and poking them with a hot metal poker…. In order to avoid turning people into monsters by suspecting them of being monsters, I do my best to keep mostly to myself.
Katharina is not the kind of person to keep to herself though, and she is angered by the stupidity that her neighbors demonstrate. Rather than hide, she wants to confront her accusers and she wants to be able to live her life openly. One can hardly blame her. The accusations against her were outrageous, and while she sat imprisoned for years, her assets were liquidated to pay for her own imprisonment.
It feels weird to say I “enjoyed” this book because reading about Katharina’s treatment made me angry. She might have been abrasive, or annoying, or occasionally tactless, but that obviously does not make it proper for her to have been treated in such a way, and it’s clear that this happened to women a lot. This book just shows that female tears plus authority has always equaled trouble for those who might be a little different or on the margins of society.