The title of this review should set you humming a Leonard Cohen song (that concludes its litany of wrongs with “That’s how it goes,”) but the title of Rivka Galchen’s novel is Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch (Harper Perennial 2021). I’ve tried not to read too much into that small choice of three letters versus four, everyone or everybody, as it might simply be a choice of syllables for rhythm. Then again, schoolmaster Hans Beitelspacher says, in his testimonial in the novel, “Everybody knows that Hans’s mother is a witch…” (p. 167) I think I prefer everybody because it summons the word busybody, which better defines the people who supposedly knew this. He also says that a demon took Hans and his mother to the moon, thereby giving Hans, Beitelspacher’s schoolmate, the edge that enabled him to become an astronomer and the imperial mathematician. Johannes Kepler was indeed an astronomer and mathematician, but this novel is about his mother.
Katharina Kepler is the mother accused of witchcraft, and the novel covers a four-year period around her trial, 1615-1619. Set mainly in Leonberg, Germany, with sojourns in Linz, the novel is a frightening glimpse into village gossip that parallels today’s social media trolling. If someone says you are a witch, then you must be a witch, right? The suspense that pulls the reader along is whether the court decides Kepler is a witch, and to find that out, you will have to read the novel (or follow the link above).
I gobbled this novel as greedily as Katharina’s son Christoph must consume his sausages. I want to get the sausages out of the way first. Galchen hitches an object or image to each character. For Katharina, it is the cow. For her son Christoph, it is the sausage. As in the following.
“Someone always thinks she’s the sausage maker around here,” Christoph said. (p. 23)–Rivka Galchen, Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch.
“If you want to take sausages out of the mouths of foxes, you don’t fight the foxes. This is a sausages-from-the-mouths-of-foxes kind of situation.” (Christoph, p. 27)
“If there was a sausage to be forgone, he would forgo it.” (p. 33)
Regarding the processing of court papers, “I advised him to be as slow with the paperwork as possible, because you don’t store sausage in a dog’s house.” p. 80
My only quibble with Galchen’s invention of wurst sayings is that she doesn’t specify which regional sausage Christoph prefers. The other thing I love about these sausage sayings is that they come from Katharina’s account and thus say as much about what she thinks of her son as they do about his character. She wins us over with many more non-sausage turns of phrase. Katharina’s account of her case, of her life really, is dictated to her neighbour, Simon Satler, and after he withdraws, to her daughter Greta. In addition to her account, there is another from Simon. Their versions are spliced with testimonials from the court case — the many voices of those who know, or have encountered, Katharina.
As we read through the court transcripts, and the consequences of the trial for the Kepler family, it becomes apparent that there is another motive behind the accusations against Katharina, a motive greater than the spite and envy and pettiness we have met along the way, and that is theft. Katharina is an old woman living alone in a house with her cow, and the neighbours decide that the proper reward for their grievances against her would be the possession of her property. Or what’s left of it, once the Kepler family has paid the court costs and the incarceration costs.
In her first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances (FSG, 2008), Rivka Galchen again demonstrates her ability to get inside a character’s head. While Katharina is what we used to call “a character,” the protagonist of Atmospheric Disturbances, pyschiatrist Leo Liebenstein, is disturbingly paranoid. In his explanation of pyschosis, he makes an aside, a comment that links these two novels.
“(Consider the fact that over the past two hundred years the incidence of religious psychoses has significantly declined, while that of erotic ones has risen. Surely it is not the mental illnesses that have changed but rather the societies of people affected by them.)” (pp. 262-263). Katharina has the misfortune to be in a society willing to believe in Satan, whereas Leo is willing to indulge in conspiracy theories, one arising from meteorology (Galchen’s father, Tzvi Gal-chen, was a professor of meteorology, according to Wikipedia).
The above observation should come as no surprise, given that Rivka Galchen has a medical degree in psychiatry from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, as well as a 2006 MFA from Columbia University. Atmospheric Disturbances was a finalist for the 2008 Governor General’s Award and won the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her short story collection, American Innovations (FSG, 2014), won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award in 2014.
The author’s bio note in Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch says that Rivka Galchen divides her time between Montreal and New York. I contacted her to find out more, and she responded: “I was born in Toronto, but grew up mostly in the U.S. My family and I fell in love with Montreal, which we visited often on roadtrips. Now we spend all our summers and holidays in Montreal; we spend the school year in New York, where I teach at Columbia University.”
- Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch was a finalist for the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, HarperCollins.
- Rivka Galchen talks about the origins of her book on the CBC site.
- From Galchen’s acknowledgments, some original source material: a pdf of a partial translation of Johannes Kepler’s defense of his mother.
- Rivka Galchen was one of The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” series, publishing in 2010 a story that’s in American Innovations.
- Zsuzsi Gartner’s review of American Innovations in The Globe and Mail opens with “We Canadians like to lay our mucky little mitts on authors who make good – most recently, New Zealander Eleanor Catton, winner of the Man Booker Prize and, by dint of birth, the Governor-General’s Award. Having left the country as an infant, Galchen is even less Canadian than Catton, or that other celebrated Jewish-American author, Saul Bellow, Lachine’s famous son. But her debut collection of stories is so frightfully superb I found myself wishing she lived right next door so I could run over to borrow a cup of organic cane sugar and some of her mojo.” The Globe and Mail, 16 May 2014.
- Carolyn Kellogg’s review of American Innovations explains that the stories are remakes of male classics with a woman’s point of view, in the Los Angeles Times.
The header photo is of a Molly the Witch peony, courtesy of Susan Calhoun of Plantswoman Design, with the help of Kristen Hunter.