Thursday, November 30, 2017
Published October 2015 by Little, Brown, and Company
Source: my copy was a Christmas gift
The panic began early in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's niece began to writhe and roar. It spread quickly, confounding the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, husbands accused wives, parents and children one another. It ended less than a year later, but not before nineteen men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death.
Speaking loudly and emphatically, adolescent girls stood at the center of the crisis. Along with suffrage and Prohibition, the Salem witch trials represent one of the few moments when women played the central role in American history. Drawing masterfully on the archives, Stacy Schiff introduces us to the strains on a Puritan adolescent's life and to the authorities whose delicate agendas were at risk. She illuminates the demands of a rigorous faith, the vulnerability of settlements adrift from the mother country, perched-at a politically tumultuous time-on the edge of what a visitor termed a "remote, rocky, barren, bushy, wild-woody wilderness."
At the beginning of this book, there is a long list of "characters." It's more than a bit daunting, but absolutely necessary. My book club read The Witches this month and everyone of us, even with that list, had a hard time remembering, when we talked about the characters, if they were the accused or the accuser. And that's because there is so much information in this book and then, all along the timeline, Schiff detours off to give readers detailed histories and character studies of each of the players.
You would think that something that happened more than 300 years ago might not be that well documented, wouldn't you? I thought so. Turns out that 17th-century Puritans were prolific diarists. Heck, they recorded absolutely everything. Everyone recorded everything. Which is how, even though the official transcripts mysteriously disappeared, there were plenty of records still available for historians to comb through. Still, as much as I'm impressed with the amount of research Schiff and her team have done, it can get more than a little overwhelming. This is not a book you'll race through; but then, it's not a book you should race through. Although those who know report that Schiff doesn't break any new ground here, there was certainly a lot of information that was new to me. For example, I had no idea how widespread witch hunts had been in Europe before they made their way across the Atlantic or the extent to which the judges at the "witches'" trials ignored glaring contradictions that would have led any rational person to find these men and women innocent.
Although the book made a lot of best-of lists in 2015, it's not a book without bias and Schiff frequently made modern references that felt a little out of place in the narration. I went into this book with high hopes that it would be a book that would pull me in and keep me reading. In that regard I was disappointed. When I struggled with the book in print, I moved to audio. I had some concerns about being able to stay focused but it turned out that by combining the audio and print, I was able to find the balance I needed to finish the book. Which I liked quite a lot, even though, on rereading this, it sort of sounds like I didn't.