August 2, 2017

Book Review - The Witches: Salem, 1692

The Witches: Salem, 1692

by Stacy Schiff

Genres: Biography, U.S. History, Nonfiction
Publisher: Back Bay Books
Length: 512 pages
Published: September 20, 2016
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Audible

My Goodreads Rating: 2.5 or 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff, author of the #1 bestseller Cleopatra, provides an electrifying, fresh view of the Salem witch trials.

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."

With devastating clarity, the textures and tensions of colonial life emerge; hidden patterns subtly, startlingly detach themselves from the darkness. Schiff brings early American anxieties to the fore to align them brilliantly with our own. In an era of religious provocations, crowdsourcing, and invisible enemies, this enthralling story makes more sense than ever.

The Witches is Schiff 's riveting account of a seminal episode, a primal American mystery unveiled-in crackling detail and lyrical prose-by one of our most acclaimed historians."

Excerpt: (from Chapter One)

"In 1641, when the colonists established a legal code, the first capital crime was idolatry. The second was witchcraft. 'If any man or woman be a witch, that is, has or consults with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death,' read the Massachusetts body of laws. Blasphemy came next, followed by murder, poisoning, and bestiality. In the years since, New England had indicted more than a hundred witches, about a quarter of them men. The first person to confess to having entered into a pact with Satan, a Connecticut servant, had prayed for his help with her chores. An assistant materialized to clear the ashes from the hearth and the hogs from the fields. The servant was indicted in 1648 for 'familiarity with the devil.' Unable to resist a calamity, preternatural or otherwise, Cotton Mather disseminated an instructive account of her compact.

In 1688, four exemplary Boston children, the sons and daughters of a devout Boston stonelayer named John Goodwin, suffered from a baffling disorder. 'They would bark at one another like dogs, and again purr like so many cats,' noted Mather, who observed Goodwin’s family and wrote of their afflictions in 'Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions' the following year. (The 1689 volume was a salute to his father’s 'Illustrious Providences,' a grab bag of apparitions and portents, published five years earlier.) The Goodwin children flew like geese, on one occasion for twenty feet. They recoiled from blows of invisible sticks, shrieked that they were sliced by knives or wrapped in chains. Jaws, wrists, necks flew out of joint. Parental reproof sent the children into agonies. Chores defied them. But 'nothing in the world would so discompose them as a religious exercise,' Mather reported. Thirteen-year-old Martha could read an Oxford compendium of humor, although she seized up when handed a volume he deemed 'profitable and edifying,' or one with the name Mather on the cover.

To observe her symptoms more closely, Mather that summer took Martha Goodwin into his home. She cantered, trotted, and galloped about the household on her 'aeriel steed,' whistling through family prayer and pummelling anyone who attempted it in her presence—the worst house guest in history. She hurled books at Mather’s head. She read and reread his pages on her case, lampooning their author. The sauciness astonished him. 'And she particularly told me,' Mather sputtered, four years before the Salem trials, 'that I should quickly come to disgrace by that history.'

The cause of Martha’s afflictions was identified soon enough. The witch was the mother of a neighborhood laundress. On the stand, the defendant was unable adequately to recite the Lord’s Prayer, understood to be proof of guilt. She was hanged in November, 1688, on Boston Common.

Samuel Parris, the Salem minister, would have known every detail of the Goodwin family’s trials from Mather’s much reprinted 'Memorable Providences.' The book included the pages Martha wildly ridiculed. The 'agitations, writhings, tumblings, tossings, wallowings, foamings' in the parsonage were the same, only more acute. The girls cried that they were being stabbed with fine needles. Their skin burned. One disappeared halfway down a well. Their shrieks could be heard from a distance....

Soon the twelve-year-old daughter of a close friend of Parris’s began to shudder and choke. So did the village doctor’s teen-age niece. A creature had followed her home from an errand, through the snow; she now realized that it had not been a wolf at all. The girls named names. They could see the culprits clearly. Not one but three witches were loose in Salem."

My Book Review:
There is no doubt that a tremendous amount of effort and research went into writing this book; it must have been a long and laborious project. That being said, some of that length is felt in the pacing of this 512-page book. Though I have both studied and sought out books on the Salem witch trials previously, it was difficult to keep individuals straight and I often felt fuzzy and bogged down by detail.

Schiff's narrative makes it clear that she hopes to present this history without inserting her own interpretive framework, allowing readers to make what they will of this epidemic belief in witchcraft, yet her excessive use of footnotes do otherwise. These ancillary pieces of commentary reveal the author's skeptical view of the craze, though she tries to do so in a reserved manner. I found it off-putting that as the author of this tome, she refuses to include her views within the narrative itself, while her footnotes suggest what she thinks without doing so in a straightforward manner. I can understand Schiff wanting to present the history on its own, but if she wanted to include her thoughts I feel this would be better done in a thorough introduction or epilogue rather than through the inconsistent tone of the footnotes.

The last two chapters (after hundreds of pages of reading) are very interesting as Schiff gives some sense of what happened to each of these Salem women after the witch-craze had ended. This conclusion-of-sorts is extremely valuable and represents what is often entirely missing from other authors' examination of this time in U.S. history. I truly commend the author for this and wish more writers of historical nonfiction would include these wrap-ups. These chapters leave readers with the sense that to some extent, there were punishments without a crime and in other cases crime without consequent punishment.

The number of victims of this madness--both adults and children--is heartbreaking. As she concludes her book, Schiff does suggest that some historians believe the girls suffered from conversion disorder (a very interesting theory of which I'd like to learn more), but it's unclear if this is her interpretation which again, left me wishing her perspective was more apparent. Perhaps the best line from the book is when Schiff argues that hysteria is contagious and attention addictive. I wish there had been more information about Tituba's background and so I look forward to reading Elaine G. Breslaw's Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem.

Overall, Schiff's book is a very detailed, researched account of the infamous Salem Witch trials and well-suited to those wanting an in-depth analysis of the day-to-day proceedings of the case and its many characters. At the same time, it felt way too long. If you're interested in books about the Salem witch trials, I'd highly recommend Shirley Jackson's The Witchcraft of Salem Village.

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