The Hangman’s Daughter is the first of a seven-book series set in medieval Germany. It tells the tale of Martha Stechlin, a local midwife and herbalist accused of witchcraft. Several children die in a small Bavarian town and each has a strange witch-mark tattooed on their shoulder. The local hangman, Jakob Kuisl, is sent to torture a confession from the accused, even though he does not believe in her guilt.
Jakob’s daughter – Magdalena – is an intelligent young woman in love with the local physician’s son. They both know Martha Stechlin is not a witch, and together they set on a mission to uncover the truth behind the false accusations.
The Hangman’s Daughter is an interesting read, steeped in the local superstitions and folklore of the period. Oliver Potzsch paints a vivid portrayal of an oppressive, patriarchal society where everyone’s lives are pre-ordained at birth. But against this stifling backdrop, he makes the hangman a compassionate, human, multi-faceted character, who remains loyal to friends and family even in personal adversity.
There is little difference between Martha Strechlin’s craft, the hangman’s renowned herbal cures, and the local doctor’s medicine – except the female practitioner is the only one selected as the scapegoat. This irony is not lost on the reader. And many parallels of misinformation, personal bias, malicious gossip, and fear skillfully demonstrate how “witch hunts” still gain traction in our sophisticated, high-tech society today.
There are, however, several unfortunate modern colloquialisms in the text that jar the reader out of the Seventeenth-Century setting, but I trust this is a by-product of translation and not an inherent flaw in Potzsch’s writing.