Tag Archives: Salem

Frances Hill – A Delusion of Satan (1995)

89522I love reading about the Salem witch trials. Obviously anything to do with witchcraft will seem intriguing and is easily sensationalized, but the trials, because the were so confined to a specific time and place make them so interesting to study. Why Salem? Why 1692? These are questions that have bothered American historians. While many are apt to pass over the witch trials or view them as simply an anomaly in American history, there are a number of scholars who have attempted to give this event a significant amount of attention.

Frances Hill’s book is one of the better accounts that I’ve read. For those unfamiliar with the trials, the historical record is shaky at best, and absolutely impossible to get through at its worst. There are so many families involved, many sharing names and way too many people to keep track of. Factor in the debts owed and the grudges held and wading through the history of the Salem witch trials becomes a giant mess. Hill does a good job however, writing clearly and focusing on the prominent community members so the reader does not get lost.

What was especially interesting was Hill’s ideas about what started the whole paranoia about witches. As most know, the panic started when a number of teenage girls appeared hysterical and claimed to be possessed by other women in the community. Hill blames this on the nature of their existence. Growing up in the Puritan faith would have caused young people a great deal of stress and anxiety. While boys had a physical outlet for these feelings (it was permissible for boys to play outside, fight, etc), girls had no such way of dealing with these emotions. Hill believes the mass hysteria that gripped teenage girls in the community was a result of this. They blamed women who were outcasts in society to begin with and as Hill points out, this episode became one of the first episodes of women-on-women bullying.

It is definitely a feminist perspective on the whole episode in Salem, but seeing as the trials involved a majority of women (only one man was convicted of witchcraft), viewing it through a feminist lense is not off base. Hill does a great job in dealing with this very interesting, but aso muddled subject.

Suzy Witten – The Afflicted Girls (2009)

AfflictedGirlsLike most people who have studied early American history, the Salem Witch Trials, are series of events that I find incredibly interesting. I was excited to read this novel, (it is a fictional account of the trails), but ended up having mixed feelings at the end.

Reading non-fiction accounts of the trials is often difficult and confusing. There are so many names and so much confusion in general that, as I have noted before, it is really difficult to make sense of it all. In writing her novel, Witten chooses to focus on a select group, the most “popular” of the afflicted girls and the accused; Abigail Williams, The Reverend Parris, his wife and daughter Betty, Thomas, Ann, and Lucy Putnam, Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop, Sarah Good, Sarah Osbourne, Mercy Lewis, Tituba and her husband John Indian. Other prominent characters in the trails make appearances throughout. I liked that she chose to focus on a small handful and it made the story more compelling and moved it forward.

Witten also does a good job with her depictions of New England society at the time. She contrasts how many inhabitants were Puritan Christians, but still held superstitions, and certain practices were not seen in conflict with the Church. It wasn’t until the accusations of witchcraft started flying that harmless things like fortune telling and tea leaf reading began to be viewed in a much more sinister light.

One of my qualms with the book is how historically inaccurate it is. Obviously as a novel, things like the thoughts and actions of the characters are left to the author’s interpretation, as is her right. The author writes that she read about teenage girl experimenting with Jimson weed from Barbados during this time and noted how the symptoms matched those described and she decides to use Jimson weed as an explanation for the girls’ behavior. I do not have a problem with her premise nor do I have a problem with her using Abigail Williams as more of a villain and Mercy Lewis as a sympathetic character. (Abigail Williams is seen as a villain in more than one adaptation of the Salem Witch Trails although there is no hard evidence for this).

What I did have a problem with was Witten’s rewriting of other parts, For example, Abigail Williams did move in with the Parris family, but the Reverend’s wife had died and Betty had an older brother and younger sister. In the book, Betty is an only child and Ann Putnam, the Reverend’s wife serves as a foil to Abigail’s romantic aspirations with her uncle. Also in the book, only three women, and one man hang, while the rest are set free by an unknown saviour. In real life 19 women were hanged and one man was pressed to death. Witten also changes the futures of her characters with Abigail becoming a prostitute, and Tituba escaping to Quebec. In reality, Abigail disappears from the historic record, and Tituba confessed to being a witch and repented and was later released from prison after someone paid her bail.

Changing these details is not a huge deal, but Witten needs to be clearer about what she is doing. I still enjoyed the book, and liked Witten’s premise surrounding Jimson weed as an explanation. The book was also surprisingly sexual at some unexpected times but overall it was a good read.