Stacy Schiff,
The Witches: Salem, 1692
(Little, Brown & Co., 2015)

Only the day before, while she cleaned the parsonage lean-to, a tall, white-haired man in a dark serge coat had appeared. He ordered her to hurt the children. ... A yellow bird accompanied her visitor. He appeared as two red cats, an oversize black one, a black dog, a hog. If she served him, she could have the yellow bird.
- from Tituba's confession, as related by Stacy Schiff

I've long had a fascination with the events that unfolded in late 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, where a witch frenzy gripped the population and led to the executions of 20 people. I've read much on the subject over the years, and visited the town itself more times than I can count. When Stacy Schiff's new book, The Witches: Salem, 1692, came out, I cracked the spine eagerly; while I'd never read her work before, Schiff -- author of, among other histories, the acclaimed Cleopatra -- comes with sterling credentials.

I was disappointed. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of good history packed into more than 400 pages of prose. But Schiff has a rambling style of writing, drifting from one unconnected fact to another. She writes from the assumption that readers already have a comprehensive knowledge of the witch trials, introducing many characters and events as if we should know who and what they are. Worse, much of her text is dry stuff, making the book a difficult slog.

Part of the problem, too, is that she writes fantasy as if it were real, and makes assumptions she couldn't possibly know. For example:

Rebecca Nurse ... continued to torture Ann Putnam Jr., flaying her for thirty minutes with an invisible chain.

And, further down the same paragraph:

Little was discussed in and around the village that week besides the Nurse testimony, the Lawson sermon, and the arrest of Dorothy, Sarah Good's daughter.

It's probably safe to assume that Rebecca Nurse wasn't really flaying poor Ann with a spectral chain. And there's no way Schiff could know what the people of Salem were discussing. While it's safe to assume the topics she mentions were foremost on everyone's mind, it's bad history to state presumption as fact. (In other words, it's one thing to give history a literary flair, but that doesn't mean making things up as you go.)

I almost gave up reading at the start of the second chapter, which has this florid opening:

Skimming groves of oak, mossy bogs, and a tangle of streams, Anne Foster sailed above the treetops, over fields and fences, on a pole. In her pocket she carried bread and cheese. It was mid-May 1692; after a wet spring, a chill hung in the air. Before Foster on the pole sat Martha Carrier. ... They traveled at high speed, covering in a flash ground that would have required three and a half hours by a good horse....

Wait -- does Schiff believe the Salem witches were really witches? Does she believe flight by broomstick is actually possible? Is ... is Stacy Schiff a witch?

No, probably not. But in this instance, at least, she's also not a scholar. Once I start a book or movie, I usually stick with it to the end, no matter how bad it might be. But this -- which, besides some poor scholarship, is needlessly dull -- is one of the rare exceptions; I am barely 100 pages in, and I'm done. I have too many books waiting to be read to waste further time here.

I suspect some potential readers won't even get past the book jacket, which states that Salem was "one of the few moments when women played the central role in American history." Yes, our history books continue to be dominated by tales of white men doing important things, but even so that's a hard claim to swallow. Women, sung or unsung, have been central to a great deal of America's story.

book review by
Tom Knapp

9 January 2016

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