Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

 You might think a book about a hangman set in 1600's Bavaria would be a pretty grisly read. Instead, it has some of the most likable characters the Recommender has come across, as well as being a really good mystery that's intelligently written and has a dark sense of humor. The author, Oliver Pötzsch, is descended from a line of hangmen and knows how to tell a good story. What could be better? Jakob Kuisl's father was a hangman, as was his father and by all rights, his lovely, smart daughter Magdalena should eventually be the wife of the son of a hangman. As a boy Jakob had to help his father with some particularly gruesome executions at which time he vows never to make this his career.
We skip ahead and find Jakob, now an ex-soldier, wielding the executioner's sabre and tools of torture to earn a living in the town of Schongau and provide for his wife, Anna Maria, Magdalena and his young twins, Georg and Barbara. He is also a healer, a reader of advanced medical texts and savvy with herbs and potions. Jakob is a strong, thoughtful man, and capable of great bravery. He survives despite the double-standardism he deals with on a daily basis regarding the town's need for a hangman and its revulsion of him as being bad luck, and not fit to mix in polite society. His daughter is called "the hangman's wench"! Not the most pleasant time to be alive but one the author has brought vividly to life.
One day, a boy is pulled from the river. Things look bad. Someone goes for the town doctor and finds, instead his son, Simon Fronweiser, a young medical student. Alas, there's not much he can do. The town looks for a culprit. Who could do such a thing? The boy's father, a wagon-driver, suspects rival wagon-drivers. Then someone notices a mark on the boy's shoulder. A symbol. It looks to be a witch's sign! Of course! Now the towns-people remember! Peter, the boy, had been hanging out at the local mid-wife's house, along with several other children. She used herbs and potions. She's a witch! OK, maybe she delivered ALL the town's children over the years, but, hey, a witch is a witch.Years before, Schongau had been the site of a terrible witch hunt. What better way to solve your problems than by burning some unlucky women at the stake. Good times!
A contingent from the town go to take Martha, the mid-wife, into custody. The boy's father raises a studded stick to strike her. "I wouldn't do that" says a voice. It's Jakob, the hangman. Instead, she is taken to prison where she is to be tortured if she doesn't confess. By Jakob himself.
So begins this addictive story. Simon and Jakob are friends, Simon being an admirer of Jakob's vast medical library and knowledge...and of Jakob's daughter. Can this engaging trio find out who really killed the boy, and prevent any more killings or will Martha face the flames? This book is highly recommended. The Recommender LOVED the depiction of small town politics which haven't changed all that much since the bureaucracy of  1600s Bavaria. I LOVED Jakob, Simon and Magdalena who are all such complex, realistic and, yes, even endearing characters, I can't wait to read the next two titles which are now available in the USA! (Special thanks must go to the translator).   It is also the Goodwin Library's Book Club choice this month so there should a great discussion coming up next week!

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