By Oliver Potzsch Translated by Lee Chadeayne
Just realized that I went from a soul collector to an executioner….
The Hangman’s Daughter is about a small town in 17th Century Bavaria (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duchy_of_Bavaria) and it local executioner and his family. We also get to meet a budding physician, some nasty former soldiers, a few orphans, the accused midwife, various local leaders and, of course, the hangman’s daughter. The two main characters are really the hangman himself, Jakob Kuisl and the young physician, Simon Fronwieser. Although Simon is in love with Magdelena Kuisl, the book focuses more on her father and her love interest.
In the town of Schongau, April 1659, a local midwife is accused of witchcraft when two boys are found dead with a suspicious mark on their bodies. A generation previously, over 60 women had been accused and burned at the stake for witchcraft and some in the city still remember those times. The “devil” is seen around town, a suspicious fire burns the warehouse, someone destroys the progress on the new leper house being built outside the town walls and other children have gone missing. While the town council and citizenry look to the torture and death of the midwife to solve their problems, Jakob and Simon try to figure out what is really going on even while Jakob is forced to begin torturing the accused.
I never thought of witchcraft as something that happened outside of Salem, Massachusetts. I never expected an executioner to have more medical knowledge and education than the local quack or barber. I also was surprised to find that many of the townspeople, including the midwife, depended on the hangman’s supply of medicinal herbs for treatment of bodily and mental ills. In addition, I never thought of the hangman’s family as somehow being a dynasty (executioners passed on their trade to their sons and their daughters married other young executioners). And this fictional novel is actually based on true stories — the Kuisls are Potzsch’s ancestors.
What did this book have to do with my faith? I wonder how often we Christians use our beliefs to prevent us from finding out the truth. Historically, we have often turned a blind eye because if we looked carefully enough our rough faith understandings may be changed or challenged. Certainly, accusing someone of witchcraft and blaming all your problems (failed crops, dead animals, sickness, infertility) is easy to do. But it does not get at the truth which can set you free.
I have to say I did not enjoy reading this book because it felt so dark. I could not see the reasoning of why things were happening (I like it when it seems like I can solve the mystery, even if I am no correct) and I had no hope for a good ending (torture, witchcraft, death seemed most likely). Would I still recommend it? Yes. If nothing else, it is different but has a pleasing ending. I can’t stand books that try to be different and the ending is just awful (The Solemn Lantern Maker comes to mind). The Hangman’s Daughter is not like that.