Salem Revisited

The Witches: Salem 1692, by Stacy Schiff, (Little, Brown and Company), 512 pages, release date 27 October, 2015.

I actually finished reading Stacy Schiff’s The Witches back in August, but I keep putting off writing a review because I’m daunted by the challenge of doing this book justice. The Witches is a major piece of work—detailed, carefully researched, complexly woven, and insightful.

Schiff explores the life experiences of the accusers, both before and after the witch hunts began, asking worthwhile questions about what it meant to be growing up female in Salem’s rigid, male-dominated society. Schiff’s Salem is not at all quaint. It’s a theocratic police state able to terrorize even its most powerful citizens.

I’ve read a number of books on these events in Salem, but Schiff managed to surprise me with historical details I was unaware of. Salem’s village book of trasactions was retranscibed after the witch trials, omitting all material from late January through early December for that year. Many of the girls among the accusers came from outside Salem, worked as servants, and had survived Indian massacres in other parts of the region. Death by pressing is a process that takes days, not hours, as I’d always assumed. Cotton Mather prayed for the death of a son-in-law he didn’t like, and happily accepted credit when the young man died unexpectedly. Schiff doesn’t just present these points as statements of fact, she ponders their implications and lets readers ponder with her. The Witches is a book that will have you questioning human nature, the role of religion, communal hysteria.

In addition, Schiff is a marvelous prose stylist. My advance copy of the book is full of underlined sentences and exclamation marks noting passages that I found particularly striking. She writes of “the coincidence-free sector between faith and paranoia.” She describes one unscrupulous character as “an opportunistic shape-shifter, nearly invertebrate in his loyalties.” She warns that studying events in Salem too closely can lead one “to see patterns that are not necessarily there, like a hyper-perspicacious assassination buff or… for that matter, like a witchcraft judge.” She even manages to work Albus Dumbledore into a footnote.

The Witches is a meaty, rewarding read that continually repays readers for the time they spend with it. It is, quite simply, an exceptional work of nonfiction.

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