The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Potzsch

9th June 2011

*I got this book at BEA from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. You can order it from Indiebound here.

In 17th-century Bavaria, the hangman’s trade is one that leaves him an outsider – reviled by those who pass him but awe-inspiring to the community because of his power, the man whose hands mete out torture and execution is not one with whom anyone associates. But Jakob Kruisl comes from a long line of hangmen and after helping with an execution when he’s young, he’s not quite sure he wants that inheritance.

After a stint in the war, though, Jakob realizes he can kill indiscriminately or kill those the court has deemed guilty. He chooses the latter. However, when a young boy is killed brutally and is found with the witch’s sign on his back, midwife Frau Stechlin, who delivered Jakob’s children, is accused of witchcraft and murder. Knowing the woman is not a witch but a healer (always a dangerous calling) and tortured by his task to cause her pain and execute her, Jakob, his daughter Magdalena, and Simon – a local doctor interested in Jakob’s progressive medical knowledge – endeavor to find who is behind the killing. As more and more orphan children are killed, townspeople report sightings of the devil, a man with a scarred face and a left hand made of white bone. Jakob must fight superstition and outsmart the town council and “the devil” to save the midwife, the other orphan children, and his family.

What I liked: Everything. This book was engrossing. I started it Monday night and stayed up entirely too late devouring it. The book was translated by Lee Chadeayne, and there were moments when I felt it was a bit simplistic, but eh – still loved it. The setting, both place and time period, were well done, and the witchcraft story was incredibly tense: I’m talking sweaty palms. However, The Hangman’s Daughter is an odd title because, though Magdalena is in the story, the book was much more about Jakob, the compassionate, progressive, ethical hangman.

Book Club Questions: Do stories of witch hunts fascinate you? The paranoia and fear petrify me. What other books featuring witch hunts have you read? Also, the book has great discussion of midwives and healers and the scrutiny they faced. Why do you think this was/is?

jenn aka the picky girl

  • It’s interesting, my son and I read a book set in the middle ages in England earlier this year called the Executioner’s Daughter, that involved a compassionate, ethical (though tragically doomed) hangman, who was married to a healer, and their daughter. Strange how those intersect. It wasn’t a mystery – it was a children’s book that grappled very well with some of the same issues, but nonetheless.

    • pickygirl

      Wow. That is odd – I need to look it up to see if it’s the same author, as sometimes they will release a much-more toned down version. The author actually comes from a long line of executioners and became interested in his ancestry because of a cousin, which I thought was so cool.

  • This sounds like a book I need to add to my tottering TBR Mountain. Gee thanks a lot. HA! Great review. But you know what this book reminded me of – immediately – not because of the ‘hangman’ thing but because of the witchcraft aspect?

    SPEAKS THE NIGHTBIRD (published in two volumes) by Robert McCammon. If you haven’t read this, I do think you’d like it, P.G.

    • pickygirl

      Hm – haven’t heard of that but will definitely add it to the list. Thanks for tip!

  • I just finished this book. I thought it was pretty mediocre. Pretty sad, huh! I saw that you loved it on GoodReads so I thought I’d stop by and read your review. The last 25% of the book I actually kind of felt like just tossing the book aside. I think the writing became more and more sloppy as the book progressed. I finished and I might read another one at some point, but I’m not rushing to pick up the next in the series. I’m glad you enjoyed it though! A lot of people seemed to have enjoyed it!

    • I honestly think it’s the translation. The second in the series had some really annoying turns of phrase that I think are probably on behalf of the translator. It makes a big difference, that’s for sure. But I like the time period and idea behind it.