The year is 1507, and a friar has arrived in Tierkinddorf, a remote German village nestled deeply in the woods. The village has been suffering a famine, and the villagers are desperately hungry. The friar’s arrival is a miracle, and when he claims he can restore the town to prosperity, the men and women gathered to hear him rejoice. The friar has a book called the Malleus Maleficarum—“The Witch’s Hammer”—a guide to gaining confessions of witchcraft. The friar promises he will identify the guilty woman who has brought God’s anger upon the town; she will be burned, and bounty will be restored. Tierkinddorf is filled with hope. Neighbors wonder aloud who has cursed them and how quickly can she be found? They begin sharing secrets with the friar.
Güde Müller, an elderly woman, has stark and frightening visions—recently she has seen things that defy explanation. None in the village know this, and Güde herself worries that perhaps her mind has begun to wander—certainly she has outlived all but one of her peers in Tierkinddorf. Yet of one thing she is absolutely certain: She has become an object of scorn and a burden to her son’s wife. In these desperate times her daughter-in-law would prefer one less hungry mouth at the family table. As the friar turns his eye on each member of the tiny community, Güde dreads what her daughter-in-law might say to win his favor.
Then one terrible night Güde follows an unearthly voice and the scent of charred meat into the snow-filled woods. Come morning, she no longer knows if the horror she witnessed was real or imagined. She only knows that if the friar hears of it, she may be damned in this life as well as the next.
From my bookgroup and adding to both of my reading challenges – Historical Fiction And Paper Only challenges.
This is set in a rural part of Germany, where the local religion is Catholicism, but with a sense of the pagan still being strong. People still make the sign of meat (a 4 legged animal shape) and often read the runes, much to the priest’s derision when he finds out.
The town has been in a state of famine for several years, whereby the crops have failed and even the birds don’t fly over any more. Traps lay empty for days, and there are days where people go without a single meal, whilst outside, the snow lays on the ground.
Güde lives with his son, his wife (Irmeltrud), and the two children. Güde is old, filled with rheumatism, unable to work much, and is probably has a touch of dementia – she certainly forgets conversations, and her daughter in law believes she contributes nothing to the running of the house, whilst still eating some of the food. Irmeltrud essentially mistreats Güde – such as withholding food in favour of the children, verbally abusing her etc.
Meanwhile, having heard of the famine in the area, a friar appears in the town, on a witch hunt, and it is the only other old woman who is (falsely) accused and subsequently burnt at the stake. Güde knows it’s only a matter of time before they accuse her too. She doesn’t know what Irmeltrud will say to the priest in order to get access to the food he has brought, and she doesn’t know if the visions she sees are because her mind is fading, or because she actually is a witch.
Ultimately, the men of the village go off on a hunt in order to find food and it is then that the friar strikes and locks Güde up. She is fearful that she will be burned before her son returns. For various reasons, Irmeltrud is also accused of being a witch and is therefore locked up with Güde (Güde essentially tricks the priest into thinking there is always three witches in a coven, with her Daughter In Law being the third).
The men return, with food, and also with the woman they claim is responsible for the famine. In a turn of events Güde and Irmeltrud are released and it is the outside “witch” and the friar who end up being burnt at the stake.
This is a relatively thin book, but still rather packed. It was good to see it narrated from the point of Güde, where you take part in her confusion over what is and isn’t real, the pain at being betrayed by the people she has lived with all her life, and the fear of just what people can do to each other.