Michael Schmicker: The Witch of Napoli

by Rachel Baker on March 12, 2015

One of the most amazing places I’ve ever been is Naples, Italy. Beyond just the beauty of a city so old, there was a certain amount of presence. It seemed like every place you went, there were ghosts of the people who once lived in the city. You could almost hear the beckoning of the prostitutes, the yelling of the women selling bread, the soldiers from the forts, and the artists and sculptures who lived in the dank rooms above the stores. The presence of history was EVERYWHERE. More than any of that, I felt like at any moment I’d see the old woman who mixed potions and talked to the dead…I knew there had to be that character roaming around in the memories of Napoli. I was so enamored by the city, I actually considered whether it would be possible to live in Naples when my enlistment was up.

When I saw an opportunity to review The Witch of Napoli, I snatched it up. I’d read the synopis of the book and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt The Witch of Napoli was the woman I expected to see when I was there. My witch was more of the hedgewitch tradition, of course, but I was just as happy with Alessandra Poverelli as the stand-in for my imagination.

The Witch of Napoli is a historical novel centered around a celebrated medium named Alessandra Poverelli, who is loosely based on the real-life spiritualist Eusapia Pallodino. Using Alessandra, the author is able to focus on the turn-of-the-century battle between science and religion, specifically, the question of what happens when we die. The Witch of Napoli is not over-saturated with commentary of either science or religion; and its incredibly easy to get caught up in the story without pondering the underlying question being posed between the two factions (scientists and anyone else who believes in an after-life).

I picked up the book, and reluctantly put it down only for meals and sleep, finishing it a day later. The book is an incredibly good story, and the author did a wonderful job making it easily digestible. More than anything, I found the book enchanting. My dear witch of Napoli didn’t travel Europe being studied by men who didn’t believe the very thing she was peddling, but I imagined if she did, she’d have been as outspoken as Alessandra.

One of the qualities I found endearing about Alessandra was her ability to do what she had to do to accomplish her goal. She agreed to be a guinea pig of sorts because doing so would allow her the money she needed to accomplish her dream of moving to Rome, away from the abusive man who ruled her life. I thought this aspect of Alessandra’s personal story was the most intriguing, because it created by the author solely for the story. The woman Alessandra is based on was pretty incredibly called a fraud over and over again. Because of her steadfast resolve to get to Rome, the author gave us a completely plausible reason why Alessandra would have made the decisions she did towards the end of the story. We don’t have this same benefit when researching the stories on Palladino – it appears, from the notes section on the wikipedia page she often employed deceptive trickery.

I think by giving Alessandra a clear goal, the author succeeded in creating doubt about the intention behind Palladino’s deceptions. We see every day, reports and articles written and published with the sole purpose of discrediting politicians, artists, scientists, etc. If I’d read about Palladino prior to reading The Witch of Napoli, I would have written her off as nothing more than fraud. Now, if I’m honest with myself, she’s still a fraud, but I wonder what drove her to be so deceptive and further question how she got started, was she remorseful or did she just realize she knew how to put on a good show and it paid. I also wonder how much of what was written about her is actually true or made up to discredit her.

Wonderful job by Michael Schmicker on what appears to be the first historical fiction he’s written. This book betrays its title, as it is not a book about witches and ghost stories, its actually a book about science and religion; and the societal struggles to understand both train of thoughts. I also thought the way the author explored whether you could bring the two ideas together in a happy life together was genius.

If you haven’t picked up The Witch of Napoli yet, you should. Its worth your time, whether you believe in an afterlife or not, or believe one can speak to the dead or not. The book is a well-written story about either a woman with a dream, or the basic struggles between science and the religious belief in the after-life.

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