Two weeks ago I traveled to Salem, MA and walked the same routes that the accused of the Salem Witch Trials walked over 300 years ago. As such, the experience was amazing, however, I didn’t feel as though I could have gotten all I did by just going. If you do go, you need to do quite a bit of research to really understand what the trials were all about and how they became such a phenom three centuries later.
As such, a few months ago the non-fictional author, Stacy Schiff, who wrote Cleopatra released her newest work entitled The Witches, Salem 1692. The book was met with much hype and even more rave reviews. I would have to say it was one of the first of its kind; an accurate, complete, and non-academic attempt at explaining the timeline and entire plot of the Salem Witch Trials. Thus, in seeing the sites and going on an exceptional tour, I wanted to know all of the details of the “dark” time period in our country that many would like to forget.
Altogether, Schiff’s novel is 417 pages of annotated chapters. I’ve read War and Peace and Gone With the Wind, so 417 doesn’t scare me, but annotated with a 30-plus page bibliography is a bit daunting. Surprisingly, this isn’t my only complete about the work (please proceed to the next paragraph for those, haha). As noted, Schiff excellently portrays the discussion of all topics that occurred during the time period in question; all of the who, what, why (to some extent), when, and how’s are all answered through her thorough discussion of characters and timelines. I give her as many props as I can spare on the details, for there are so few sources that remain to this day. Moreover, many of them are firsthand sources, written in penmanship that’s sub-par and even worse, English that is untranslatable at times. For this, Schiff does an amazing job of delving into the material with as much information as she can and does the trials (and all of the happenings pre- and post-1692) as well as she could.
Unfortunately, this book was one of the most tedious non-fiction I have read in a long time (if not the most convoluted, ever). I’m a huge Robert K. Massie and Carolly Erickson who keep their biographies or non-fictional tales to short, crisp sentences. Schiff’s sentence structure, on the other hand, is like reading a run-on of a person who takes themselves way too seriously. If anything, this work was a textbook, which greatly took away to my main premise of reading the work: for fun! I wanted to learn, not be bored to death. Not only was Schiff’s prose tedious, it was also organized in a quasi-timeline manner, jumping around a lot especially between the timeline of the events of the witch trials and the world events or cultural norms of the time. It would have made more sense to set the scene (i.e. during this time, women did not get that much attention because the men were out fighting the Indians and trying to bring food home to the family), sacrificing the first few chapters for the reader to fully understand what it was like to live in 17th Century MA. This made reading this book really hard to follow. The only chapter that seemed well-placed was the last one which delved into, and only into, the societal repercussions and full discussions of why the witch trials occurred in the first place. In a novel such as this, if you don’t have a clear and concise way of delivering the historic details to your audience the entire purpose of the work is negated. As a reader, you don’t want to be talked at, you want to take on the presence of being enveloped in the world you’re reading about. For this reason along, Schiff’s work is way too hard to read (And I’ve read my fair share of science textbooks, and they were EASY in comparison).
Now, I didn’t quite grasp historical premise of the Salem Witch Trials before or during my trip. Considering I know much more now that I’ve read this work, I want to make a few general comments that really struck me. First off, if you do read this novel, prepare to be annoyed with the timeline of events. It’s really disturbing that I have to say this but the timeline is very deja vu, in the fact that history keeps repeating itself: accuser accuses a “witch”, judges prosecute the “witch,” and the “witch” is sentenced to death. This repeatedly happens over and over to so many people. It’s astounding that this was real life and unfortunately, the monotony of the tale takes away from each individual’s story. This is just a general comment that I had about half way through Schiff’s book.
As noted, Schiff does do an outstanding job in outlining all of the places and people that are to blame for the Witch Trials. I’ve done a little analysis in attributing the blame to three main reasons: Accusers, Judges, and Society. Many of the accusers were women, and Schiff attributed much of their drive to find “witches” to come from seeking attention. During this time, women, especially those who did not come from wealthy families, were in constant shadows of their husband. Their husband would go and fight Indians, die, and they were supposed to continue feeding their children, protecting the house, and find a new spouse. Colonists would also have large families, since only 50% (exact statistic, I’m not sure, but close to half) would survive. Thus, between eight siblings, one had to do something to be the only one with attention, especially the girls, who really had nothing to live for except marry and have more Puritan children. The second grouping I attribute the Witch Trials were the judges who clearly took their jobs way too seriously and too such a dark place that their actions were condemned by the King of England. The Judges (and yes, there was a panel of them) believed the accusers without asking any real challenging questions, asked leading questions of the accused (How do you answer: show me how you are not a witch?), and then jailing those individuals for months in disgusting jails. Seriously, if I went without nail polish for a week you could get me to say pretty much anything, let alone no heat, plumbing, or food/water. No wonder our system is no Innocent until proven Guilty; the assumption of guilt is troubling when innocence is something harder to prove. The third idea that I have to blame for the trials must be society. How could neighbor turn against neighbor, if not for land and monetary gain? Salem, while it’s not too far from Boston, in the 17th Century was far enough away that it was a civilization of its own, especially during the winter. Being cutoff from others will cause individuals to seek attention and do things they would not normally do if in an all-inclusive society or one greater than a couple hundred. At one time there were 700 accused “witches” in Salem. That is an astounding number, especially for that era. The greed of the townspeople of Salem, must be one of the most intriguing sociological studies to date. No wonder Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible” about it to represent McCarthyism. Daughter turned against Mother, neighbor against neighbor, it really sends chills down my spine that humans have that amount of evil in them, especially when you think that they believed this was all because of the Devil. If anything, the “witches” were the accusers and the judges doing the malicious and heinous acts of accusing innocent victims.
Anyway, returning back to subject: if you have the time and the effort to read Schiff’s work, I would highly suggest it. But get your fine-toothed comb out for some serious reading. I could manage about 30 pages at a time, which was quite a bit. It’s dense, full of details, and will get you frustrated whether it be the monotony or the characters, be prepared. This was a blemish in American History, but mind you, America wasn’t the only place that hunted Witches under false pretenses. Many countries had similar instances, I think we just capitalized on it the best (which could be good for drawing attention to the events, or bad for capitalizing such a national tragedy). 300 years, and now we memorialize those who died, the most we can do that many centuries later.