Daily Book Review: 'The Witches: Salem, 1692'

Thursday, December 3, 2015 - 4:03pm

Stacy Schiff’s “The Witches: Salem, 1692” is the kind of book you forget isn’t fiction.

Though it’s a bit long for those not already acquainted with Salem scholarship, “The Witches” is still accessible. It chronicles the beginning of the Salem hysteria, follows the escalation of the trials to fever pitch and addresses the eerie silence that followed the 19 executions of the “witches.” Reading these stories feels like watching a play — a serious, sometimes unwittingly and darkly humorous play.

It began with a group of young girls having fits and accusing neighbors of witchcraft. Accused witches either denied the charges — effectively signing their own death warrants — or confessed and named other witches in turn. The “afflicted” girls, as they were known, rapidly became Salem’s darlings. Ministers and other leaders of the town hung on their every word, tracked the quick, darting movements of their eyes in the courtroom and shrugged helplessly as the girls screamed and contorted their bodies in pews, crying out that they were being pricked by the specters of witches they had named.

Schiff includes stories about family feuds, adulterous relationships with servants, jealous spouses and the transparent machinations of petulant teenagers. They startle you into realizing the colonists of Massachusetts Bay lived with the same kind of subtle social politics we do now. For better or for worse, these accounts make the fantastic events of Salem relatable to our own lives. They increase the length of the work as a whole, and sometimes teeter on the edge of being extraneous. But they flesh out the story that, historically, is too often chalked up to a fluke year of frantic religious fanaticism.

The creative retelling of these tales is also where Schiff’s sense of humor glints through the lines. For example, she observes that becoming an “afflicted” girl often meant not having to milk the cows (or do any of the other chores that plagued Puritan girls from dawn to dusk). Schiff is also completely aware of her audience, slyly slipping in references to “Harry Potter” and “The Wizard of Oz” in the footnotes.

She also illustrates how religion was present in every aspect of the colonists’ lives and how this created an environment where accusations of and hysteria about witchcraft could (and did) spread like wildfire. Witchcraft and religion were inextricably linked; acts of sorcery were conflated with heresy. Witchcraft implied a contract with the devil.

In studies of American history, women have often been relegated to paragraphs within chapters. But it’s undeniable that women were the central characters in the Salem witch trials — they were the majority of the accusers and the accused. Schiff’s analysis of the witch trials through a gendered lens is incredibly astute without being dismissive of the other influences that played a role. Over the years, there have been several lenses through which people have viewed and interpreted the Salem witch trials, and Schiff manages to incorporate many of them.

It’s impossible for us to ever have a fully comprehensive understanding of what transpired in Salem in 1692. Our primary sources are limited; we have access to death warrants, preliminary hearings and confessions, but that’s about it. Though Puritan girls in Massachusetts Bay were more educated than others of their demographic at the time, none of them left journals or diaries.

Schiff’s book is deceptively accessible. It reads like a novel, but it represents painstaking historical research and the putting together of a thousand-piece puzzle — of which a few pieces are forever lost to us. The witchcraft trials represented a bizarre amalgam of gender and class politics, religious fervor and adolescent strains that culminated in the hanging of 19 people. Schiff captures and communicates this complexity to us, but she also acknowledges that no matter how far we strain to reach back through time, there are some mysteries in our history that will always elude us, just ever so slightly out of reach. Salem, 1692 is one of them.

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“The Witches; Salem, 1692”

By Stacy Schiff

Little, Brown and Company