Monday, 29 August 2016

Review: 'The Witches: Salem, 1692' by Stacy Schiff

The Witches: Salem, 1692As some of you may know, I am fascinated by witchcraft and everything to do with it. So of course I couldn't resist a book about the infamous Salem Witch Trials, especially not by an author like Stacy Schiff who excels at historical biographies. The Witches tries to cover a wide range of influences on Salem and although at times it lacks focus and cohesion, it does make for interesting reading. Thanks to Orion Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Publisher: Orion Books; Little, Brown and Company
It began in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's daughter began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, but not before 19 men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death. 
The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, parents and children each other. Aside from suffrage, the Salem Witch Trials represent the only moment when women played the central role in American history. In curious ways, the trials would shape the future republic.
As psychologically thrilling as it is historically seminal, The Witches is Stacy Schiff's account of this fantastical story-the first great American mystery unveiled fully for the first time by one of our most acclaimed historians.
The Salem Witch Trials are one of those historical events which have never been truly explained and keep playing on in popular culture. Massively popular films and TV shows such as The Craft, Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch play on our interests in witchcraft and women, secrecy and public disaster. This fascination, which is largely an American one since Europe had quite an intense history with witchcraft itself, is in and of itself also interesting. Why does Salem prove so pervasive? Is it the role of women played during the trials that keeps us coming back and has helped feed films and TV shows such as those above? Or is it the fear of the Law not being able to control its public, of outrage outstripping reason? The latter is what inspired the famous The Crucible by Arthur Miller, itself a comment on the Red Scare of the 1950's, McCarthy's hunt for Communists in America. Salem can be many things to many different people, which explains the continuing interest that exists for it. However, this also makes it difficult for an author to bring something new and interesting to the debate. Schiff's The Witches continuously struggles with this difficulty.

Stacy Schiff sets out to complete quite an arduous task. On the one hand she has to describe one of the most illogical moments in American history which still baffles historians and cultural critics alike, and on the other hand there is a whole set of historical facts and details which she has to introduce to the reader to bring some semblance of logic into her book. Walking the fine line between speculation and fact is difficult and although Schiff does her best occasionally the book does veer off this line. Many books have been written about the Salem Witch Trials, as well as about European witch hunts in earlier centuries. Many of these books argue a particular angle, hoping to provide an answer as to why these trials happened, some more outlandish and sensational than others. Schiff's The Witches doesn't necessarily add a new interpretation or explanation, so readers looking for that will be disappointed. Schiff moves freely between discussing the chronology of the trials and discussing past events that carry some relevance to the proceedings. This means both extra and interesting information, but it also causes some confusion at times.

Schiff's writing style is what saves The Witches from being purely an academic textbook or becoming boring. She seems to intimately engage with her historical charges, investing time and energy in describing the New England winters or the claustrophobia of a Puritan village in the 17th century. Schiff's Salem feels more real than it does in many other books, not as alienating as it is sometimes described. At times this leads to characters being given an almost anachronistically modern mindset, and some descriptive analogies feel very off due to their modernity. But usually it helps couch the book's straightforward information delivery in an at times engaging narrative. What made The Witches interesting to me was how well-researched it is. Schiff clearly invested herself in the events surrounding Salem, not only in 1692, but also in the surrounding few years. Schiff's focus on the judges, and especially Increase and Cotton Mather, also sets it apart from other books about Salem and I learnt many new things from it. However, this also makes it fall a bit flat at times, the book not proving very engaging because it's not exactly going anywhere.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

The Witches is an interesting addition to the literature around the Salem Witch Trials. Although it doesn't offer a strikingly new interpretation of these events, it does cast a new and interesting light on some of the people involved. I'd recommend it to people interested not only in Salem specifically but also Puritan New England, witch trials and historic non-fiction in general.

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