The Witch Finder by Blythe Gifford – Reviewed by Louise Rule
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“It’s October 1661, Scotland, the Borders – Hoofbeats woke her, sending her heart tripping fast as the horse, even without knowing who rode. Nothing good rode at night.”
These are the opening lines to a story that will take you into the realms of the witch finder. The horrors of not being able to make someone believe that you are innocent, when those around you see you as guilty. Blythe Gifford cleverly draws the reader into the story, pitting the searcher against the searched.
The opening lines of a book, for me, are very important. They have to set the scene, hook me in, and make me want to turn the page. Blythe Gifford’s The Witch Finder does that for me. It is not a book that I would instinctively choose, but the cover intrigued me. First of all it has a teaser – “He’s a haunted man. She’s a hunted woman.” The title of the book overlays the picture in a bright yellow font that catches the eye; encouraging the reader to view the picture that sits behind it; a woman cloaked in black. So, being naturally curious, I had to read it.
Margaret is our protagonist, hiding her mother who has been sent mad through interrogation in Edinburgh by the witch finder called Scobie. They are living in a small, remote, barely furnished cottage out along the road from the village of Kirktoun. Here she could keep her mother safe and away from prying eyes and questions. Blythe has the reader feeling sympathetic towards both Margaret and her mother from the outset. We feel her panic as the witch pricker comes riding past her home. Will Margaret’s mother be found? Will Margaret be accused of being a witch? Nail-biting moments carry the reader page by page. We are taken into the realms of interrogation, and the bitter futility of declaring innocence.
The Witch Finder is Alexander Kincaid who had watched his mother die. We are told that she was the victim of a witch’s curse. It is because of this that he dedicates his life to finding witches.
Blythe Gifford has a sound knowledge of the era of witch finding in Scotland in the 17th century. The witch finder being referred to as the Witch Pricker, because of the brass pointed tool that was used to prick into the accused. If the accused felt no pain they were guilty, if they did not bleed from the wound, they were guilty. If they professed their innocence, then it was The Devil putting those words into their mouths. They were literally, damned if they confessed, damned if they didn’t. Either way the use of the witch pricker tool always proved the poor woman guilty.
There are some really poetic images running through the story, for example: ‘…The flash of anger. But it rippled away like the sparkle of a fish in the stream, so quickly he wondered whether he had seen it at all.’ And: ‘The moon, half eaten by clouds, looked down on them as wind rattled the trees, sending leaves scuttling across their steps.’
I have never been to Scotland, but I know Scottish people, and have heard different Scottish accents on films. I feel that Blythe has realistically used the Scottish dialect here and there where it has the most impact. I think had she written all speech in dialect the book would have become difficult to read. Writing in dialect is a difficult thing to do properly; I think that Blythe has achieved it. For example, ‘Since I’m nae witch, I canna answer’; and the use of a word I have to assume is a dialectal word, ‘unricht’ which I would presume means ‘wrong – “unright”’.
Blythe confidently carries the reader through the story at a great pace. There are breath-taking moments, holding-your-breath moments, and moments of great relief. I feel, because of her ability to carry the reader through, the book had the possibility of being brought to its conclusion in a more comprehensive and less rushed manner. Although the ending is complete in its way, given the subject of this book, I would have expected an ending with more dynamism. I don't know if Blythe Gifford intends a second book or not, but I consider there is scope for the story to continue.
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