Like 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.