Book review: ‘The Witches: Salem, 1692,’ by Stacy Schiff
Special to the Daily
Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is required reading in nearly every high school classroom, placing the village of Salem, Massachusetts, well within the sphere of pop-culture awareness. In Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff’s new book, “The Witches: Salem, 1692,” the murky depths of that horrifying year are probed deeply and with exceptional care, building a rich tapestry of facts meticulously extracted from an event in history that has been elevated to nearly mythological status.
Where a community burdened with guilt allowed the fog of history to obscure a devastating transgression, Schiff pulls back the veil, revealing in chronological detail the layers of superstition and righteous zealotry that ended the lives of 20 individuals and destroyed the livelihoods of many more.
Salem, a village struggling to gain a foothold on the boundary of what was still a very wild and forbidding continent, will forever be tainted with the bloody brush of irony, for it was founded by Puritans, who for the most part came to the shores of North America to pursue their faith without persecution. “They had come a great distance to worship as they pleased; they were intolerant of those who did so differently.”
Schiff, very lyrically at times, explores this double standard that provoked what she calls “America’s tiny reign of terror.” She acknowledges that this is not to discount, of course, the much larger reign of terror inflicted by the settlers on the native peoples who were virtually exterminated from North America.
She refers to the dark times of a New England winter as “Bible black,” when the notions of witchcraft, the occult and the devil rose to the surface of the daily musings in the small, isolated communities. Daily activities were centered on frequent and fervent sermons, reinforcing the fear and distrust already festering in the vulnerable community. The real presence of native tribes provided ample fodder for susceptible imaginations and rumors.
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There is plenty of evidence of violence and loss suffered by the residents of Salem at the hands of the Native Americans who were fighting against being pushed off their lands. Some of the girls who played pivotal roles in the accusations of witchcraft had suffered familial losses due to the Native American raids, especially in Maine.
Flighty Moral Compasses
Schiff points out that “a Puritan did not waste a catastrophe.” Every event that happened had to have a Biblical connection, and Salem village was a fairly dysfunctional place, even before the witch frenzy began. There were many interwoven familial units and much discord from the outset. Ministers, who were meant to be the moral compasses and the pillars of the community, came and went, unable to navigate the contentious atmosphere of the overly insular village.
When Schiff gets into the meat of the matter, the pace really begins to pick up, and at times, her writing grows billowing and fanciful and can be difficult to follow, but she still manages to hold to the linear procession of facts, of which only the most notable bits and pieces ever made it into Miller’s dramatic account.
What is unique about the Salem case of witchcraft — which was by no means the first to occur — was its unusual focus on young women, who were certainly a terrifying demographic for men who felt their power and their sense of Biblically-ordained righteousness threatened. It is this macabre dance between the men in positions of power and the women of the village, who by the very nature of their sex were vulnerable to the whims of the gathered court.
With a modern perspective and a more reasoned, contemporary frame of reference, it is difficult, perhaps, for a reader to understand the series of events that led a panel of somber and educated men to cower before the screeches and antics of a handful of girls who single-handedly lit the flame of demonic furor that proceeded to consume the village for well over a year.
For the bulk of the book, Schiff focuses on laying out the facts into a very meticulously researched timeline. She only steps back for an analysis of what might have been the realities of the events that unfolded in the latter pages of the book, leaving the specter of witchcraft as a viable truth to hang over the heart of the narrative. This technique helps to pull the reader into the world of Salem as it must have been in 1692, uninterrupted with a modern psychological and scientific dissection that would have left the reader feeling more removed from the actions of those dramatic months.
Schiff capably brings to life one of the most troubling and dramatic episodes in American history, in which the judges and magistrates were surprisingly susceptible to the pressures of others. “For a bunch of nonconformists, they took well to lock step.”
Just as Samuel Parris fanned the flames of intolerance, fomenting the furor that followed, one need look no further than some of today’s prominent figures who are inciting people to prejudiced views toward others. Schiff clearly puts forth her analysis of the Salem witch trials as an opportunity to educate and alert her readers.
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