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Likely Stories: The Witches by Stacy Schiff

Detailed story of the Salem Witch trials and all the people involved in the 1692 tragedy.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I have always been fascinated by the roots of the “Puritan Ethic,” which still haunts America in the 21st century.  I mostly read fictional accounts -- The Crucible, The Scarlet Letter, as well as  miscellaneous stories and a brief history, which was all I could manage.  What I really craved was a detailed description of events, characters, and the long-lasting repercussions of one of the most infamous tragedies in American History.  A couple of years ago, I thoroughly enjoyed the biography Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, so when I saw she had written the book I had long awaited, I was excited.  Unfortunately, The Witches is a pale imitation compared to the story of “The Queen of the Nile.”

Stacy Schiff was born in Adams, Massachusetts in 1961.  She graduated from Philips Academy in Andover, and earned a BA from Williams College in 1982.  She worked as a senior editor at Simon & Schuster until 1990.  Her articles have appeared in many major literary journals.  In 2000, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her biography, Vera, who was the wife and muse of Vladimir Nabokov.  She was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer for her biography, Saint-Exupéry.  Schiff resides in New York City, serves as a trustee of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and she is a guest columnist at The New York Times.

My main problem with the book involves the structure.  She begins with a six page “Cast of Characters.  This daunting list greatly impeded my reading, as I found it annoying to constantly have to go back and forth to figure out who was whom.  She then provides a detailed list of the incidents labeled as witchcraft.  Schiff tells the story of about a nine months in 1692 when the accusations began, individuals were arrested, imprisoned, and hung.  One unfortunate individual was “pressed” to death.

And then I arrived at the last two chapters.  These pages saved the book for me.  Schiff neatly ties up the main characters, their real motivations – land and power grabbing, personal vendettas, along with a slew of children who had childish reactions to parental authority.  Schiff suggested at least some of these children were prompted by adults for revenge over long standing disputes.

The amazing part is the lack of records kept by the normally attentive Puritans.  Most were rambling, fragmentary, and many were destroyed in order to erase the memory of the events.  Apologies were few and far between – some not coming until well into the 18th century.  I did learn a lot from the book, and I am sure an expert on late 17th century Salem, would get a lot more than I did.

What fascinated me, however, was the horrible damage wreaked by the intermingling of religion and government.  The judges were all Puritans.  So it is no wonder the judges – assuming the devil was behind all the evil in the town – did not bother to verify any of the claims of children as young as ten.  The searching of suspect’s bodies for moles, warts, or birthmarks as evidence of witchcraft was nothing less than flabbergasting.  While I was slightly disappointed in Schiff’s latest novel, The Witches, I am not going to give up on her.  Vera is next on my radar.  3 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.