Widdershins by Helen Steadman is based on the Newcastle Witch trials of 1650. Very little is known of the event other than a list of names of those who were executed, and even that is disputed. With so little information it was a subject ripe for fiction and Helen Steadman has delivered a truly compelling and thrilling tale. Divided into two narratives; Scotsman John Sharp and apprentice healer English girl Jane Chandler are the fictional creations who become entangled in this all too tragic occurence. The 1650s were a time when puritan values took hold, when pastors preached fire and brimstone and the evils of the flesh and neighbour turned against neighbour. The depth of Helen's research is immediately apparent. This book is a treasure trove of the cunning woman's knowledge of herbs and healing, birth and death. (Image courtesy of publisher Impress Books)
Jane learns how to make infusions and syrups from a young age. She knows the right berries to pick and the right time to pick them. She doesn't think there is anything sinister in the salves and tinctures that she makes. Her mother makes them too as did her grandmother before her as does their neighbour old Meg. However this is a time of change when old superstitions start to become something else, something darker. Meg upbraids Jane for falling asleep beneath the elder tree in case she is snatched away by the little folk but around the same time John Sharpe is a witness to the trial of Kirstie Slater who is accused of picking bewitched fruit from the elder tree in the kirkyard in order to commune with the devil even Meg refers to the elder as the witch tree. Helen Steadman has placed her story just at the point where the old ways are being scorned and the Puritan ideal is taking hold. The research here is stunning and the story telling is compelling. Jane is a wonderful lively narrator and she grows from wild young girl to wise young mother while John crushed by cruelty early in life grows darker and crueler with time. This is essential reading for anyone with an interest in history particularly the history of the North East of England, the history of medicine, women's history and witchcraft in general. I cannot wait to see what Helen writes next. If you are a fan of Beth Underdown's The Witch Finder's Sister then you need to read this book. I would also recommend it to fans of Karen Maitland, Diana Gabaldon, Nicola Cornick and Hannah Kent. It is excellent. Thanks so much to Natalie at Impress Books for the chance to read an early copy. Widdershins will be published in July.
Learn more about Helen at her excellent website http://helensteadman.com/