Mary Sharratt's new novel Daughters of the Witching Hill takes place in the late 1500s-early 1600s on Pendle Hill in England. A woman who hasn't had much success in her life--her husband dead, her daughter born with a "squint" eye, forced to beg for food--is suddenly met by a strange young man named Tibb, who causes her cunning skills to awaken, thus bringing her fame as a blesser and a healer in her small community. Despite the fact that she is religious and uses religious prayers in her healing, most folk are wary of Bess and her family, not the least for the fact that her prayers are Catholic in nature (a major infraction under the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I). Still, Bess's family benefits from her skills until her health and eyesight begin to fail, and then Bess looks to her oldest granddaughter, Alizon, to carry on the family tradition. But Alizon's unsure of her powers and distances herself from them, a mistake that results in her striking down a traveling salesman (a "chapman") when her temper gets the best of her and her powers rush out of control. Will her one mistake be the downfall of the entire family?
There is a lot more to this story than what I've described above, and yet, there isn't. Based on the factual tale of the real Device family who lived during this time, Mary Sharratt has fashioned a well written tale of what might have happened during this disturbing time of witch hunts in the English countryside. There are villains, of course: Bess's former friend Anne learns to use the cunning powers but turns them to ill, and a former lover of Bess's daughter Liza evilly abandons her and their daughter. There are the misunderstandings of the time: a son born mentally challenged to Liza is seen as both simple and evil, and the idea of religious freedom is but a dream. This story is told first from Bess's point of view and then from Alizon's, and both women, while courageous and smart, are ill-used by those who should have supported them most.
The story itself took a while to catch hold for me; while I kept turning the pages, I also kept wondering when the "real" story of the witch hunt and trials would take place. However, Sharratt sets us up well by allowing us to glimpse into the desperation of the Device family who mostly just want to feed their own and help others. I did wonder, however, if all the long backstory of Bess was necessary; I felt that there was too much detail given to her learning to use her skills to the detriment of Alizon later on. In fact, I'm not sure I would rate this book higher than 3.5 stars if not for the fact that it is indeed well written and entertaining; it just seemed to need more focus in the earlier pages so that the action toward the end would have been sustained throughout. It was certainly well researched, with a great author's note to help sort out the factual from the writer's licensure. Overall I did enjoy this one and can recommend it for those who are interested in witch trials in England, as well as those looking to learn more about the common people during the early seventeenth century.