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. Neighbours accused neighbours, 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.
At the time of writing this review Goodreads have rated this as 3.12 out of 5
In 1692 the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men and two dogs for witchcraft. The sorcery materialised in January. The first hanging took place in June, the last in September; a stark, stunned silence followed.
If you were to say ‘book’ and ‘witches’ in the same sentence my mind immediately goes to the ‘The Witches’ by Roald Dahl. Even though I am now an adult who sometimes engages in adulting, ‘The Witches’ still sends a shiver down my spine. One day I will fully recover from the movie adaption. Today is not that day.
FYI – this book review is not on that book. Maybe another time. And it will be a five star review by the way because…damn. Roald Dahl still owns me.
This book is a bit of a departure from the norm for me in that it is a non-fiction book. Why do people read? Why do I read? Escapism? To live a thousand lives instead of just one? To try and forget that at the age of 33 I still consider a good dinner to be a bowl of cereal and salami from the pack? Not just any cereal mind you. I’m talking premium Honey Nut Cheerios.
Fiction stories have some crazy setups but then the saying goes ‘sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction’ and unfortunately those who say that are sometimes right. This book is about the Salem Witch Trials which occurred in 1692 (as the book title so helpfully points out). For those who are unaware of what the Trials were about I have included a link here which gives an incredibly good overview. A famous and fictionalised account exists in ‘The Crucible,’ which is both a play and a movie. Although I have seen the movie (and it is a good movie with an impressively emotive performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor) it is also a heavily romanticised version of what happened.
Let me say this – the real world can be so depressing.
During the history of humanity, people have performed some beautiful, awe inspiring, heartfelt acts. The events of the Salem Witch Trials was most definitely not one of these times. Maybe it’s me but I find the Trials both fascinating and abhorrent and the more I read about them the more fascinating and abhorrent they become.
First off I am massively interested in history that contains a heavy female presence. Maybe its on account of me having double X chromosomes or maybe it’s because women in history tend to be forgotten in lieu of their male counterparts and I’m interested in hearing the untold tales. Maybe it’s just a personal thing.
The Salem Trials is so heavy in female involvement – both as accused and accuser and I would gladly and readily read anything about that period of time that is waved in front of my face. Do I think that this is the book to get started on? No. A hard no.
The glorification of the Trials is not needed. Lets ignore the length of time that has passed and call a spade a spade shall we? People were murdered and lives were ruined. That doesn’t need glorification. The whole entire event should speak for itself, embellishment is not needed here.
But, oh…. what a shame when the content of such an event comes across as being…dare I say it… boring. I mean… how? What happened was a horrifying travesty and an insight into how the way people can be truly vile and hideous to their fellow humans but it was never ever boring.
I would never normally say this but… what the heck is wrong with you author?!
‘The Witches’ presents a lot of what happened in an incredibly factual way (well most of the time, but I’ll come onto that) which is exactly what you would expect in a non-fiction book. Unfortunately, I feel that the author had amassed so much research that she wanted to pour every little drop into what was being written. This means that we get records of every meeting, every trial and every historical event on the timeline with as much detail from the archives as possible.
If you want a comprehensive summary of all the records that exist on the Trials without having to read them all yourself this is great, go for it, read this book. However this book is not great if you want a more human perspective or psychological take on the events which is what I guess I was hoping for.
Confusingly, the emotions I felt during the reading of this book predominantly consisted of boredom and anger.
The anger I felt didn’t come from any device of the writer but occurred naturally upon reading the transcripts and details of the trials. The residents of Salem discuss “evil being present within the town that winter” and it is extremely and painfully apparent that it was but not in the way that those ‘good’ people were thinking.
The most heinous acts were not committed by the accused (or even the accusers, who were mainly silly, bored and repressed teenage girls or housewives) but by the middle aged, religiously righteous male members of the town who held positions of power and authority. My anger reached boiling point at the trial of Rebecca Nurse (see the very end)* and I spent a lot of time shaking my head that these events happened.
As this is a non-fiction book I can’t look at the components of fiction writing (characters, setting and plot) and apply them here. What can be looked at is the writing. Writing, as in fiction, is just as important in non-fiction.
I do understand the writer keeping a sense of detachment, after all this is an account of a historical event and so she must remain impartial, however there were times when the writing style switches from it’s usual standard of ‘boring’ and instead becomes slightly muddled. I mentioned earlier in the review that a lot of what is presented happens in a factual way, most of the time.
For a book that is incredibly factual to the point of the writing being as dry as a desert, the author has included some bizarre sections that seemed to be crossing into fantasy. I’m talking about the descriptions of the accused women flying on broomsticks across the sky. What?! Why?! And also it just makes me want to watch Disney’s Hocus Pocus instead.
Aside: No one will ever truly comprehend my love for that movie. No one.
Anyway. I was very excited to read ‘The Witches’ when I picked it up but unfortunately it wasn’t quite what I wanted. I don’t know what I wanted, not really, but it wasn’t taking one of the most interesting collusion’s of religion and human behaviour in history and boiling it down to transcripts and an incredibly detailed account of the Puritan judicial process.
I also understand that by providing the background of all the major people involved in the Trials gives context and aims for a factual experience but maybe my disappointment is that so much effort was expanded on the lives of those aforementioned middle aged, religiously righteous male members of the town who held positions of power and authority and not, oh I don’t know, the people they helped murder. Bitter? Moi? You better believe it.
I would love to read an account of the Trials that tries to provide some psychological depth and offers the reader a possible explanation (or many possible explanations) of why the Trials happened. This author provides the briefest of explanations at the end which includes fungus and attention seeking. I was blown away by that second suggestion as it never even crossed my mind but then, I’m not a professional researcher. (I’m really hoping that my sarcasm translates over the form of written word).
If anyone has any recommendations on books relating to the Salem Witch Trials, I beg of you – please let me have them!
*Rebecca Nurse was an elderly (71), religiously devout woman and well-respected member of the community and when accusations were leveled against her there was an outcry from the community and a petition was started to get the accusations withdrawn. Rebecca was given a trial and a significant number of the community testified on her behalf resulting in the jury providing an initial ‘not guilty’ ruling.
Unfortunately because the ‘afflicted’ continued with their fits and claimed that Rebecca Nurse was still tormenting them (and because some of the public were not happy with a ‘not guilty’ verdict) the judges made the jury reconsider the ‘evidence’ and applied pressure for there to be a guilty verdict. The judges even indicated that, as the members of the jury had family members who could be accused, it was in their best interests to find Rebecca Nurse guilty. She was, of course, then found guilty.
I just… yeah.