Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Tremain's Book Corner: "The Witches: Salem, 1692" by Stacy Schiff

The Witches: Salem, 1692
Place Hold
Author: Stacy Schiff
Reviewed By: Tremain Jackson, South Branch Manager
Personal Rating: 4 Stars

Book Summary: It began in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's daughter began to scream and convulse.  It ended less than a year later, but not before 19 men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death.

The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians of the colony.  Neighbors accused neighbors, parents and children each other.  Aside from suffrage, the Salem Witch Trials represent the only moment when women played the central role in American history.  In curious ways, the trials would shape the future republic.

Personal Review: I've long been captivated by the story of the Salem Witch Trials ever since the Crucible, along with one of the adapted films starring Daniel Day Lewis, Joan Allen, and Winona Ryder, offering outstanding performances.  So when this book was released, I wasn't too shocked that it became a bestseller, but had to check it out and see if it could offer even more insights into this part of American history.  It certainly did.

Told in the course of a year, this book provides a great account of the town of Salem, along with the 185 people accused of witchcraft, the 59 trials conducted that led to 31 convictions in which 19 people were held and one man was pressed to death.  Although the deaths of 20 individuals over the course of a year may not be exceptional, it still lingered on throughout history for the impact the trials had; of how a group of adolescent girls brought an entire town to its knees in fear.

The fascination for this period in time continues, and Schiff skillfully offers an entertaining and engaging book utilizing banter, witty prose, and heavily researched material to provide one solid entry in our history collection.  Not only does she tell you what you already know (or may not know), but she puts you in Salem to explain how life was like in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the late 17th century.

I enjoyed her explanations of how the community fed into the hysteria, along with her discussions on what many realized were the use of this hysteria to settle disputes over boundary lines, grazing rights, and more.

I will say that, although appreciated, Schiff does provide extensive details and footnotes that can be a bit of a distraction, but that's easy to look past as I'm not that much of a history buff that I'm going to go back and look up all the references.  Plus, with the sheer magnitude of those involved in the Salem Witch Trials (directly or not), it all adds to a fairly large cast of characters and stories that you'll need to keep up with and follow.  I did like that a reference list was included in the book.  That was very helpful.

That being said, it was a great read, provided me with new insights, wasn't written like your standard history book that may have put me to sleep otherwise, and it had me engaged throughout.  Perhaps my fascination with this topic helped considerably, but overall, it was a well-crafted book that I'd certainly recommend to others.  If it sounds of interest to you, look for a copy at your library.

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