I met Erika Mailman at the Historical Novel Society Conference last June (2011). I was browsing the conference bookstore and noticed a paperback novel with the intriguing title The Witch’s Trinity. As it turned out, the author was standing only a few feet away. Never one to miss an opportunity to have a novel signed, I picked up two copies – one for myself and the other to give away.
I deliberately held the review of this book for October because The Witch’s Trinity is a fabulous tale for this time of year.
The story takes place in 16th century Germany.
Aging Güde Müller loves her son Jost and his family, but when famine and starvation threaten the village of Tierkinddorf, Güde’s daughter in law Irmeltrud seeks an excuse to cast out her husband’s ailing mother.
A visiting friar blames the poor harvest on witchcraft and urges the peasants to hunt down the evil in their midst. The trial and execution of Güde’s best friend whip the town into a frenzy, and when Jost and the other village men leave on a hunting expedition, Irmeltrude takes the opportunity to accuse Güde of witchcraft. Nightmares and unexplained visions leave Güde too frightened and confused to defend herself, but when a jealous neighbor accuses Irmeltrude, Güde must overcome her confusion and prove their innocence before the friar and the town condemn the women to the flames.
Short review: Recommended, though not for children. (Disturbing content, adult subject matter.)
Long review: This book took hold of me on page 1 and didn’t let up. Güde is an engaging narrator, and Erika Mailman made the challenging decision to give her narrator a touch of either insanity or dementia (probably the latter), which causes Güde to have visions and strange dreams caused by age, Alzheimer’s, starvation, or all three. Mailman stays true to Güde’s point of view, which means that the reader perceives the story in “real time” and must work through the visions as Güde does. The book is extremely well-written, and although the reader may experience some initial confusion between dreams and reality – as Güde does – it quickly becomes apparent that Güde is elderly, and confused herself, but no witch.
This heightens the tension because the reader is simultaneously terrified that the townspeople will accuse Güde of witchcraft – as, indeed, they do – and horrified that Güde’s own mind will betray her into a false confession.
The novel contains some disturbing imagery, both in Güde’s visions and during the friar’s attempts to coerce confessions from the alleged witches, and to that end I do not recommend it for children.
The ending was very well-written, and I won’t spoil it with details, but suffice it to say that Mailman does a masterful job of resolving the conflicts without glossing over the reality and the consequences of the village’s witch-trial frenzy.
I recommend this book to anyone looking for a novel that goes beyond mere story. It is compelling both in its narrative and in its treatment of the underlying issues. The best kind of novel is one that makes you think without hitting you over the head with a message – a compelling narrative that refuses to let the reader go. Erika Mailman’s The Witch’s Trinity is just such a narrative.
Read it. You’ll see what I mean.
The novel was a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book of 2007, and is available through Amazon in hardcover, paperback and kindle editions (and also through your local bookstore).