Analysis of the witch hunt | Book review
The new novel by Humboldt author Doug Ingold There was a contagion exposes a dystopian vision of a drought-stricken and famine-stricken countryside, where frightened people seek scapegoats. Religious and civic leaders gain prominence in mastering the articulation and gradual increase of this fear, assigning blame to outsiders in a way that matches existing prejudices. These leaders say “the contagion” has come from outside and that punishing or purging figures on the fringes of the group will set things right, encouraging city dwellers to overcome inhibitions that previously restricted the open expression of hatred. Rhetoric works as an accelerator, stoking long-standing prejudice and resentment with murderous intent.
Contagion is a work of historical fiction set among peasants in a 16th century German village and, yes, it is a witch hunt, but the actual hunt doesn’t begin until the second half of the book. The novel’s opening chapters methodically set the scene for this grotesque event, constructing a world out of the sights, sounds, and cognitive horizons of a medieval village, and situating the young protagonist Elsebett in a multigenerational narrative.
Ingold’s medieval tale is propelled in part by a desire to illustrate the range of human responses to societal crisis, and no one who has paid attention to the American headlines since the COVID-19 pandemic will be surprised by its nature. inglorious. Readers who are urged to overlay the leading story on the map of recent U.S. history, as a model, will likely raise their eyebrows at overlapping passages and expire at parts where the stories diverge.
Today’s parallels aside, Ingold’s chronicle follows two generations of a German-speaking farming family in a small village in Western Europe. Grieving father Basil Helgen hires 7-year-old daughter Elsebett to village midwife / healer Rachel Mueller after the mother of the child in childbirth dies. His family’s life is difficult, like that of any pre-modern subsistence farmer: hard work outdoors, close family and community ties, narrow economic margins, intermittent hunger, and vulnerability to outside forces such as unpredictable weather and storms. exorbitant feudal masters. These aspects of community life feature in the early chapters of the book, told largely from Basil’s perspective. Midway through the book, when Elsebett begins her apprenticeship, the narrative changes to adopt her point of view with lyrically imagined passages detailing Frau Mueller teaching her how to research herbal and compound medicine, how to help childbirth and, in a way controversial, how to read.
The author’s previous novel Land of roses points of contact drawn between the old money of San Francisco, the theater world of Ashland, Oregon, and the cannabis culture of southern Humboldt. In this plot, place is a constant, while the characters’ connections unfold over time. Ingold is skilled at describing an intensely local existence where, especially for women, opportunities for exposure to the outside world are scarce.
Ingold practiced law in Garberville for many years before retiring to write full-time, which may have served him well when it came to writing about rural village life. His simple narrative is attentive to family triangulations and conflicts across generations. He easily penetrates inside, noting how a dynamic between two people can be experienced as “a private physical sensation” and how a person living in a united family can experience a creeping isolation “growing around him like thick skin”.
In the second half of the novel, a sense of impending doom sets in. Theories blaming the drought and starvation of a particular marginalized group are gaining feverish followers, as the initial halt in efforts to identify a scapegoat becomes a heavyweight. Elsebett and his mistress Rachel possess knowledge about the natural world – let alone the intimate functions of the supposedly sinful female body – that has not been incorporated into the discipline of medicine. In the eyes of their friends and neighbors, these characteristics are enough to certify women as a threat.
There was a contagion skillfully portrays a world before science, where calendar time is calculated in terms of holy days and the church is the sole arbiter of truth. “Contagions want to happen,” Frau Mueller told Elsebett at one point. “What a contagion calls for is a cause, someone or something to blame … The contagion produces a sleight of hand to distract attention from itself.” Witch hunts, she says, are entertaining by design: they appeal because they are associated with “excitement, drama and suspense.” Before they do anything else, it seems, they satisfy the urge for a cool story.
The last third of the book examines the motives which make it easy for the good people of the village to adapt to evil. Fear and a sense of resentment motivate some characters’ fascination, while for others it is meanness mixed with a rudimentary desire to hold onto authority.
At one point, Rachel predicts that one day in the future, a young nun in a convent, leafing through chronicles, “will find our time noted there, and she will marvel that such madness could have happened.” Such near-modern confidence – in the power of the written word and society’s trope in reason – sets Rachel apart from her peers. Today’s reader might reflect on this comment the author put in the mouth of a 16th-century peasant midwife and be struck by the boldness of her optimism.
Gabrielle Gopinath (she) is a writer, art critic and curator based in Arcata. Follow her on Instagram at @gabriellegopinath.