Katharina Kepler is an eccentric older widow. She lives in a small German village in the early 1600s. She is knowledgeable about herbs and natural healing and she isn’t shy about letting her feelings be known. It is perhaps inevitable in this atmosphere that she is accused of being a witch. Initially, Katharina brushes the accusation off. It comes from a woman she has little regard for and who she strongly dislikes. But when others join in with the accusation and it seems that those against her have influence with people of greater power, the accusations of witchcraft become more serious.
The story is told primarily from Katharina’s perspective, as dictated to her neighbour, Simon. Because Katharina is a woman and illiterate, she has little control over her own narrative. This story is told as her version, her desire to lay out the facts as she sees them. We also hear from Simon directly, as well as glimpses of testimony (both for and against Katharina) from her neighbours, and letters written to move the case along.
Again, as a woman and a widow, Katharina does not hold a strong social position. What power she may yield comes through her son, an esteemed astrologer named Johannes Kepler. However Johannes does not live nearby and his own position is perhaps more precarious than we may first think. Simon steps in as her guardian and when we get a chance to hear from him directly we learn that he is a steady, faithful man who believes in the value of “standing by”. Becoming Katharina’s guardian is a larger task than he may have initially expected but his loyalty requires him to stand by Katharina, even when it begins to cause him his own trouble.
The story is based on historical fact and the letters and testimonies included are based on real documents. Historically, Katharina’s story is known primarily because of and through her son. Here he is a minor figure and we see more of his wife and children than we do of himself. Katharina is the driving force here, of both the story and of her own extended family. Her children, even the esteemed astrologer, seem to revolve around her, even despite their own desires. Katharina is forceful and funny and frustrating. She is stubborn in a way that is still recognizable of old ladies, even five centuries later. It’s hard not to sympathize with her though, even as we laugh with her at the ridiculousness of the situation she has ended up in.
I also found the setting of this story very interesting, as I’ve read a few novels over the years based on historical witchcraft trials. Set in Germany, following the Protestant Reformation, religious tensions are high and I enjoyed the different tensions this brought into the story. This is the first I’ve read from Galchen but I can see why she’s getting so much buzz about it.