Tag Archive | Salem Witch Trials

Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables

I never read this book when I was younger.  I didn’t even know it was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, probably due to some mental mix-up with the Anne of Green Gables book, which seems so much more cheerful than anything Hawthorne would write.  I mean he did write The Scarlet Letter, with all those uptight Puritans.

But then I went to visit the House of the Seven Gables, in Salem, Massachusetts, where Hawthorne lived for a period of time with his relatives.  It was built in the 1600s and was the inspiration for the home in his book.  The gift shop was selling copies of the book, with a little stamp that indicated you bought it at the actual House of the Seven Gables.  And it was only $11, so I bought myself a copy.  Now I wish I would have read the book before visiting the house, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

First things first.  19th century literature is a challenging read.  Oh boy…  We think we are so smart these days with our constant connectness, but writers back then really poured in all the vocabulary words they had ever learned.  And the descriptions!  So much of the book is based on description, rather than action.

The novel centers around a cast of characters from the Pyncheon family, of whom three, an elderly sister and brother, and their barely adult niece, live in a 200-year-old home.  It was built by an ancestor of theirs and is rumored to be cursed.  The book alludes to, but never states outright, that the ancestor accused the original owner of the land of witchcraft in order to buy his property on the cheap after he was executed.  So that man did what any good witch would do and issued a gallows curse on his accuser.  I mean, even if you weren’t a witch, you are about to be executed, wouldn’t you be tempted to pop off and see if karma might have your back?

Fast forward to the mid-1800s, and the elderly residents of the home are poor and anti-social, hiding out like hermits until their young, fresh niece comes along to breathe some life into the place.  As the plot goes on, there is the constant theme of where is the money hidden, in the form of 200-year-old property deeds on long-contested land that would make the rich relatives richer and the poor ones, well, they probably wouldn’t see a dime.

So there you go.  Murder, mayhem, Puritans, witchcraft and a pretty, young maiden to save the day.  There’s a love story in there too of course, and a few twists to keep you guessing.  A good story if you can keep your eyes focused through all that prose.

Note: The photo above is not the edition I read, but this book has approximately hundreds of editions and versions and I’m lazy and just picked one of the photos instead of trying to find the version I read.  So there.  

 

Book Review: The Witches

I have read a few books on the Salem Witch Trials and have been fascinated by how it all went so far… So when The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff, popped up as available on the library website as I was looking for new audiobooks, I was interested.  Into the download folder it went…

This book started off differently, with a history of the Puritan ministers in Salem and Salem Village, as well as the conflict that existed among the villagers at that time.  Wood was already scarce, and whether a minister had to procure his own wood or have it delivered by the congregation was an issue that lead to some deep seated feuds over the years.  Who knew…  She gives several examples like this, where day to day relationships had been breaking down for years.  Add to that the fact that the Massachusetts Puritans seem to be really litigious, and you have a group of people who seemed bent on settling scores.  It makes all the finger pointing make a lot more sense, all of a sudden…

She pulls in the transcripts of the trials when possible, while pointing out that there are some trials that seem to have no transcript at all.  Even the most complete transcripts are mediocre at best, filled with summary, huge gaps and interspersed with opinion and bias.  What is clear from the transcripts is that the judges took confessions as fact, and denials as just another opportunity to wear down the accused.  I bet by the time I’d been in a filthy, cold jail with no food for months, I’d be willing to cough up a confession too if I were offered mercy.

Schiff breaks down the statistics of who went to the gallows; how many confessed vs. denied, how many had seen previous witchcraft allegations, how many were involved in a land or other legal dispute with another villager.  She also broke down the behavior of the judges and other key players long after the trial: who regretted, who repented, and who steadfastly stuck with their original decisions.  It is fascinating when seen in the light of day, and when considering who had something to gain by getting you out of the way…  In Puritan New England, just like now, it was a case of “be careful who you cross.”  It seems we haven’t changed all that much…

The Witches: Salem, 1692

 

Schiff’s book, although relatively long, makes for an interesting read.  She supports her findings with research – there are a lot of footnotes.  She breaks new ground on the topic, offering plausible background context for how the mass hysteria got underway and how it was permitted to continue.  Her writing style draws you in and kept my interest until the end.  A worthwhile read.

 

Book Review: The Heretic’s Daughter

Everyone has heard of the Salem Witch Trials. The unfortunate blight on our history that resulted in the executions of 20 people, proclaimed to be witches by the “evidence” of the day.

Kathleen Kent’s historical novel explores the family of one of the accused and executed women, Martha Carrier, from the perspective of her daughter, Sarah Carrier. Sarah was arrested and interrogated, and imprisoned for several months, but was ultimately set free.

The novel explores the themes of religious intolerance and persecution that existed in 17th century colonial Massachusetts, as well as the deep divides between families and neighbors that undoubtedly contributed to the naming of several hundred innocent townspeople.

The Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent

The Heretic’s Daughter, by Kathleen Kent

The book also deals head on with the conflict that exists between a mother and a daughter coming of age, in what must be a timeless struggle. Sarah Carrier resents her mother, always assuming that family disagreements must be her mother’s fault. She only learns to appreciate her mother’s fierce loyalty and wisdom once it is too late to rebuild those bonds. Through reflection, she realizes too late that perhaps her mother might have been right.

Kent doesn’t deeply explore the complex reasons for the Witch Trials, but keeps her novel within the historical context with accurate representations of what is known about the players involved. She is skillful at describing Sarah’s surroundings, what it must have been like growing up in the farming community of Andover, Massachusetts, and the horrific experience of confinement in the Salem Town jail, crowded with so many people, and unable to escape the filth, disease or chill.

Kathleen Kent is a 10th generation descendent of Martha Carrier, so she provides a unique perspective, and has clearly pulled from the historical documents that have survived from the trial. The novel is well written and well researched, and pulls the reader into the story from the beginning to the very end.