Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reading About the Salem Witch Trials

The year 1692 was not a pleasant one for residents of the colony of Massachusetts, especially the area around Salem. That was the year a band of girls leveled serious accusations against several fellow townspeople, calling them witches and ultimately sending them to the gallows. Here are two books that portray that era and ask the question, How could this tragedy have happened?

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent
This story is told from the perspective of a child whose mother is accused of witchcraft. Young Sarah is only ten years old at the time of the witch trials. She and her family are living in Andover, Massachusetts, the town next to Salem where all the horrors are taking place. Sarah's mother is Martha Carrier, who makes the ultimate sacrifice so her children will not face the same fate she does.

Martha Carrier was a real person, and Kathleen Kent brings her alive through the eyes of her daughter. You will feel like you are living in their household, with all the blood, sweat, and tears that marked life in Colonial America. The only quibbles I have with this book are that there are no maps and no notation as to what is based in fact. Luckily information on Martha Carrier, and indeed on the entire witch hunt and trials, are readily available online. I also found a map of Salem and a map of Andover in 1692.

Deliverance from Evil by Frances Hill
Hill sets her book in Salem and takes you right into the heart of the witch hunt, trials, and executions. She focuses on one character, another historical figure named George Burroughs. He was a minister, which makes the accusations against him quite puzzling. The first part of the book introduces you to Burroughs and his young wife Mary, who are living in Maine at the time, as well as to the girls in Salem and how they got involved in the witch hunt. Hill makes it clear that she thinks Thomas Putnam, the father of ringleader Ann Putnam, actually put the youngsters up to their antics in a diabolical plot to get rid of political and economic rivals.

The second and third parts of the book focus on Burroughs and Mary, and his ordeal in prison and her attempts to convince the magistrates of his innocence. Whether Putnam and others were really part of the conspiracy is not an agreed-upon matter among historians, but it makes the atrocities that much worse.

Perhaps because I read The Heretic's Daughter first I ended up liking it more, but somehow it seemed more real to me. I sympathized with the characters more, and I thought it was better written. The towns and the living conditions were drawn with fine details, and the characters were full of personality. It's a difficult read because of the subject matter but worth the effort. Deliverance from Evil is not a bad book, it just presents the story a little more simply. You instantly know who the good guys and bad guys are, and life isn't quite as blood-and-guts graphic. Author Hill has written several nonfiction books on the Salem witch trials so she definitely knows her history, but she seems less skilled than Kent at weaving a tale of fiction. Still, either book is a good choice for anyone interested in this particular event in American history.

thanks to Svenstorm for the use of the photo

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