the hangman’s daughter by oliver pötzsch


  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Rep Rei edition (August 2, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 054774501X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547745015

In reading news, I finished The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch. I bought it as one of the Kindle Daily Deals and the sequel as well. Most of their offerings aren’t of much interest to me but I took a chance on these two and haven’t regretted it. Really entertaining writing – reminded me of the Salem witch trials brought to life – and knowing it’s partially autobiographical, using the author’s German ancestors as real-life characters, made it all the better. What a genius idea, really. His descendants are going to have a ball reading about their early ancestors.

The main character, Jakob Kuisl, reminded me of Hagrid from Harry Potter. He was apparently a huge bear of a man, which helps as he was the town’s hangman, responsible for torturing and carrying out death sentences. The downside is the family was shunned for being “unlucky,” living on the fringes of society. The hangman’s own daughter, Magdalena, who played a key role and made for a good title, even if it’s a bit questionable as the story wasn’t wholly about her. But Jakob, along with his helper and somewhat friend somewhat foe Simon Fronwieser (a doctor who was in love with Jakob’s daughter), made for excellent comedy. Their sometimes friendly, sometimes very not so relationship could be slapstick at times, tongue-in-cheek at others – and even a bit violent, on the side of the hangman. It really enlivened the whole experience, done sparingly.

I can imagine my early Dutch ancestors as interesting characters. They were among the first farm families to settle Manhattan island, one of them formed the first Dutch Reformed Church in the new world, etc. Since they were church goers, finding records of them would be quite easy, and is how I know of them at all. Finding personal details, though, may not be so clear cut. I don’t know how to research genealogy that deeply and frankly don’t want to devote time to it: unless I were to write a novelization of their lives. My plate runneth over as it is, plus I’m not always so fond of my extended family and am not sure I want to know more about them.

The Hangman’s Daughter is a story about the accusation a local midwife is a witch, after two children die violently, both bearing “witch’s marks.” These orphan children spent their extra time hanging around the midwife, who happened to have a similarly-shaped birthmark – unfortunately for her.

As 17th C townsmen will, they began to scream about the devil and possession and all sorts of other “pleasantries,” taking the midwife into custody. The poor hangman, whose children had all been delivered by the midwife, was put in the position of having to torture her, while he and Simon worked hard to find the truth as to what was actually going on. On a positive note, the hangman was also an herbalist/healer of sorts and was able to slip very strong medications to the midwife, to easae her pain and make her ambivalent to it. At least the first time he was forced to torture her.

Well-written and mostly gripping, though the repetition of interviews required in the investigation got a bit dull. I know that’s exactly as such things must go but I found myself skimming over them in an effort to get through this rather long book. Which I did do, by the way, over the course of the week-long retreat.

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