Is anything what it seems to be? This is seemingly a toss-off question. But if addressed correctly it is bottomlessly profound, and its answer could tell you a lot about the answerer. Rivka Galchen has made its exploration into an aesthetic. Galchen’s first novel, “Atmospheric Disturbances,” was about a man who thought his wife had been replaced by a duplicate and then had to learn to live with his belief rather than disabuse himself of it. In “Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch,” a woman who is thought to be something she is not — a witch — is put on trial for it. That the woman in question is Katharina Kepler, mother of 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler, whose greatest accomplishment was showing us the earth revolves around the sun, and not the reverse, makes the question above all the more poignant. Where is truth, after all, if not in the observations of our eyes and ears? (The story itself is based in historical fact.)
Like a combination of “Rashomon” and “The Crucible,” the narrative of Katharina’s accusation arrives from several different directions: from Katharina herself; from Simon, her lawyer; from the numerous witnesses questioned about whether she is a witch; from her son; and from others. Much of the narrative is in Katharina’s voice, as she narrates her account to Simon. There are many accusers. The wife of a local glazier claims that after she sought aid from Katharina, who is a healer and herbalist, Katharina poisoned her. A child states she had massive pain after Katharina touched her in passing, despite the fact that Katharina’s account of this passing doesn’t mention contact. Still another person claims she killed their spouse with incantations. Katharina denounces all of these accusations as libelous.
As perspectives accumulate, however, so do questions. Why are the townspeople saying these things about her? What are their motivations? Is this a collaborative conspiracy? The overarching question about seeming thus deepens and becomes more critical. Katharina states clearly that she is not a witch at the book’s outset, and in an interesting move by Galchen, doesn’t spend too much energy trying to explain why or if her accusers suffered the pains they describe, as if that were outside the bounds of her consideration or understanding. And yet she is surrounded by a cloud of statements purporting the opposite.
Katharina is a remarkable creation. We know her, yet there are aspects that remain mysterious, such as her work. She is analytical; she doesn’t suffer fools gladly; she has strong convictions; and she is very sensitive. Like most people who possess those attributes, she is also fallible. She feels spite, she feels rage, she feels frustration; at times these feelings manifest humorously, as when she assigns nicknames to people she doesn’t like, such as “the Cabbage” or “the False Unicorn.” At other times, the book reads like a tale of the last years of someone who did not have a happy life, or at the least had to struggle for any happiness achieved. She has an abiding love of her cow, Chamomile, even as her herbalist practice contrasts with the more empirical medical methodology of her time. Her response to the accusations against her is angry, of course, but she also knows that her methods are unpredictable in their results. She has a sense of duty to the sick people she is trying to heal, and yet she doesn’t feel she needs to defend or explain her methods. When Katharina’s granddaughter becomes sick near the book’s end and she is unable to heal her, even seeming to back away from excessive herbal or other ministrations, another question is raised: why so hesitant? Wasn’t there more she could have done? Or is it that she knows her limits, and the accusations against her have made her inhibited? The real answer is that healing, like the healer herself, is fallible — and by extension knowledge itself is not entirely trustworthy.
This book suits our time of towering duplicity and uncomfortable truth. The accusations flung at Katharina resemble the wide range of theories that have sprouted up stateside to provide shaky explanations for everything: our government, our demonstrations, our pandemic. Galchen’s Leonberg, the city where Katharina spent most of her life, is a cosmopolitan place; we see different economic strata here, high to low, and the personalities inhabiting this place speak in a modern way, without too much antiquation. Galchen shows us that life hasn’t changed, and neither has human suspicion of the unknown, and neither has male fear of women. There are comic moments — such as the exchanges between Katharina and two Keystone-esque guards in her prison cell — but other scenes are wrenching, such as when Katharina is hauled naked out of her house to meet judgment in court. One of Galchen’s great accomplishments is making us see, through Katharina’s boldness, how illusory and unstable our concept of “society” is, and how ultimately, looking upwards, at the stars, away from the earth, as her son famously did, is a pursuit more likely to have truth at its end.
Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 250 pages, $22.99