History · Non Fiction

Book Review: The Witches: Salem, 1692

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Blurb

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.

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At the time of writing this review Goodreads have rated this as 3.12 out of 5

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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.

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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 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!

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1 Star

 

*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.

She hanged.

I just… yeah.

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: The Witches: Salem, 1692

    1. Yeah it was an absolute mess of a book to be honest! I’ve read more interesting pamphlets at my doctor’s surgery but at least they don’t try and sex it up by throwing in a fictional journey of white blood platelets or anything!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Okay..so really? The Salem Witch Trials were nothing more than a means to silent the passionate and genius souls of that era. Anyone who had a different opinion than the moral majority was crucified. If you know anything about the Bible you know this happens often especially for the incredibly devout. The persecutors where most often jealous or deviantly undevout young women and/or the so called “men” (and I use the term loosely) in their lives or jealous women/ children who had persecuted attractive women with their own minds as “witches.” I’m sorry maybe you am mistaken but isn’t this the same fight women have fought since the dawn of time????

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I must confess… your comment is confusing me. It’s very hard to discern tone from a comment on the internet but I’m guessing that something about my review in particular has irked you?

        My post, first and foremost, is not on the circumstances of the Salem Witch Trials or the reasons why they occurred. My post is a review of a book about the Salem Witch Trials, a book which I unfortunately didn’t find particularly interesting! I picked this book up because I’d hoped that it would actually provide some insight as to the *why* the trials occurred but instead found a rather generic piece of work that went into detail about timelines, judicial procedures and the history of the 1690’s. Obviously the history in terms of providing context for *why* people may act they way they act is important but I wasn’t expecting the detailed history lesson that was provided. This book wasn’t for me for that reason.

        Is your comment less about my review and more about the trials themselves? I don’t believe I have expressed that I am a historian or any kind of expert on the trials and I view the events as something both horrid and fascinating. I believe I say that it’s a collusion of religion and human behaviour and I stand by both those things. But then religion and human behaviour have been intermingling now for centuries so this is hardly new.

        I also don’t believe I have said anything positive about the trials. In fact I believe I used the word ‘murder’ because that’s what it was. Murder sanctioned by religious officials under the guise of ridding ‘evil’ when lets face it – women who are considered to be outsiders within their society are not evil they are just different from what society expected of them at the time. The evil is the acts of those that condemned not those that were being condemned. Again, this is something that occurs in history time and time again – if you are different you are bad. Obviously I (and many others) don’t think this but sadly that is part of human nature and is very prominent in the ‘pack mentality’ way of thinking.

        You’ve mentioned some interesting things in your comment – that the trials were a way to silence genius souls – was this the case? I believe (and again, no expert) that those accused were ordinary people who were simply living their life. Some of them just didn’t bow down to what was expected of them at the time (one woman in particular was known to be drunk and ‘unwomanly’) and some didn’t even seem to have a reason to be accused – Rebecca Nurse for example.

        You mention about attractive women being persecuted but again – was this the case? Rebecca Nurse was 71 when she died (I’m not saying that a 71 year old woman can’t be attractive) but I doubt she was accused because of her appearance. Susannah Martin was 70, Martha Corey was 72.

        You mention that anyone who had a different opinion was accused and that I agree with – with the key word being ‘different.’ Like I mentioned above, in society it’s usually different = bad and at the time of the trials a woman who spoke her mind, bucked societal trends, didn’t attend church, wore the wrong clothing etc. would have been considered different and sadly, back in a very misogynistic world, this would have been enough to persecute.

        As a side note – no, I don’t know anything about the Bible. I respect others right to religion and to practice their religion but I am not and never have been a religious person and so arguments based on scripture are not going to be something that I can follow.

        Your last line – “I’m sorry maybe you am mistaken but isn’t this the same fight women have fought since the dawn of time????” – also confuses me. Again, I don’t believe I am positive about the trials at all or the treatment of those accused. I am sadly aware of the way women have been treated in history, in religion and currently in multiple countries around this world. Fight is indeed a good word for it but your comment implies that maybe I don’t understand this concept? I do. I very much, sadly do.

        I am pleased that you commented, even though it appears something in my review may have not been to your satisfaction! 🙂 I enjoy hearing other peoples points of view and I do like a ‘chat’ about it which is why my comment back to you is War and Peace. If you would like to reply, I would very much encourage you to do so and if you don’t want to reply then I hope you have a good day.

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  1. Non-fiction books that read like a massive encyclopedia are *definitely* not fun. And I absolutely agree that the best non-fiction books are ones that not provide comprehensive information, but also engaging prose. And if you want an engaging *fiction* book about a witch trial, I recommend Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon! The characters are interesting and the actual trial is ulcer-inducing (in a good way!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I want to read more non-fiction definitely but I feel like the author’s still need to put the effort into the book and not just rely on people wanting to read about the subject! I’ll check out the one you recommended. I read ‘The Witch Finder’s Sister’ recently and that was a fictionalised account of the Witch Finder General in UK history – it was pretty good.

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    1. Definitely avoid this! If you come across any good ones let me know and I’ll do the same. I am deep in the love for Hocus Pocus, I think I can recite a lot of it by heart. Is that a good thing?!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a deal! 🙂 Umm yes, it’s an awesome thing! My #1 Halloween movie is The Nightmare Before Christmas and I know all the songs/lines by heart, and I’ll watch it 1000 times again. ❤ Hocus Pocus is a close second. 🙂

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