Did you know that the mother of Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century German scientist best known for his laws of planetary motion, was accused of being a witch? Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch is the fictionalized story of Katharina Kepler, who was accused of this crime at the same time her son was struggling to get his astronomical theories written and accepted.
Katharina is an easy target for the preposterous charge of witchcraft. She’s considered a widow, since her feckless husband hared off to join a war—any war would do, and there were a number going on at the time—when their children were young. Katharina does not suffer fools, and she refers to her enemies by such nicknames as the Cabbage, the Werewolf and the False Unicorn. She’s a bit of a busybody who doesn’t hesitate to press advice and herbal remedies on people who may or may not want them. And while she’s not a highborn lady, she owns property that some folks would like to get their hands on.
But she’s also tenderhearted and capable of great devotion. One of the first things we learn about her is her affection for her cow, Chamomile. When the powers that be finally come for Katharina, the moment is wrenching.
Most contemporary stories about witch hunts take a swipe at the patriarchy, and Galchen’s novel does, too. To plead her case, Katharina needs a male legal guardian, even though she’s a mature woman of sound mind and body. Guardianship is provided by Simon, her town’s somewhat forlorn saddler, and then by the put-upon Johannes.
Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances (2008), scrutinizes the corrosiveness of town gossip as the tales about Frau Kepler grow more and more ridiculous: She scratched a young girl she passed in the road; she rode a goat or a calf or some beast backward, then killed and ate it; and a mere glance from her will cause people to sicken and livestock to go mad and die. It doesn’t help that Katharina’s illustrious son has been excommunicated by the Lutheran church.
Written with a surprising sense of humor for such a grim topic, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch shows what happens when a crowd is taken over by delusion, bigotry and grievance.