Stacy Schiff, the author of the Pulitzer Prize winner, Cleopatra, one of the most popular nonfiction books of the year, has done it again. Her newest book, The Witches: Salem, 1692, is a terrific read, as enthralling and horrifying as the best novels, and at the same time it is meticulously researched and sticks closely to the facts of the Salem witchcraft hysteria.
As Schiff makes clear in her very readable book, people have been fascinated by the Salem witch trials for over three hundred years. They have been interpreted and reinterpreted in many ways, used as a metaphor for just about everything from religious hysteria to the McCarthy era blacklists, and part of that is because to this day, nobody’s entirely sure what happened or how it happened. Why did the girls throw the kinds of fits they did, screaming and contorting themselves in bizarre ways? Were they faking it or did they really believe that someone was strangling them or pinching them or otherwise attacking them? Why did so many otherwise reasonable adults take the testimony of the girls so seriously? Why were there people who admitted to being witches, and why were none of the admitted witches hanged or otherwise punished? Why were particular people accused of witchcraft? Why did the hysteria start and how did it stop?
With a novelist’s clear eye and a willingness to look at the facts using the mindset of the seventeenth century, Stacy Schiff takes us into Salem Village, and into the larger American Puritan world of which it was an integral part. She helps us enter, at least a little, into the fears and beliefs of people whose circumstances were very different from our own, and a time and place in which the very nature of the colony’s government was in flux and the people in New England had reason to feel themselves besieged by the Native Americans who lived cheek and jowl with them. She brings to life the harshness of life on the New England frontier and the strongly held beliefs of the Puritans living there.
A lot of people were involved in the trials, either as accusers, accused, family members, judges or witnesses, not to mention the people outside Salem Village (Increase Mather and Cotton Mather, the superstars of the American ministry), but it’s easy to keep track of who was who and who did what in this version of events. The story is told chronologically so it’s clear how things snowballed from one week to the next, from one month to the next. Without taking any obvious sides, Schiff makes the horrific abuses of the judicial process and the injustice of the executions crystal clear. If you know very little about the Salem Witch Trials other than what you’ve picked up from television and The Crucible, this book is an excellent place to start, and when you finish reading it, you will be really well informed on the subject.
Of course, when you’re writing about the events of 1692 in Salem, sooner or later you have to provide your explanation for what happened and why it happened there and not in other places and other times, and what that says about America then and America now. It’s probably not possible for anyone to explain what happened in a way that will satisfy everybody, but Schiff’s final chapter, in which she offers her best evaluation of what was happening to the girls and why the community got so caught up in the hysteria, is very plausible and might very well be the right answer (and no, I’m not going to reveal it here: read the book!).