Maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe I went in with too many dreams of Arthur Miller and the tourist traps of Salem in my head. Sadly, The Witches by Stacy Schiff wasn’t what I was expecting, and what I got wasn’t enough to satisfy me.
My first issue with this book is the title; pretty good place to start in terms of a list of grievances with a book. The title is a contradiction from what’s presented in the book. No, I’m not referring to Schiff taking the pragmatic approach of assuming you realize that there likely wasn’t any real witches hung in Salem in 1692. I’m referring to the fact that when I read “The Witches”, I’m assuming this book is going to focus on either the victims of the witch hangings or the young girls who caused them. Instead, 80% of the book is focused on the old men in charge who let it happened.
You could point to the subtitle as an excuse for why this is acceptable. And I understand that it’s likely a lot easier to find information about the men in positions of power than it is women and men charged with witchcraft and teenage girls who accused them. Realistic me understands this. Realistic me thought it was, for a time, interesting to get into the politics of the puritans and 1600’s America. For a time. Not for 300 pages.
I lost track of which old guy did what. I lost track of which old guy was the minister, who was the governor, who was overseeing the courts, who was clerking. They all blended together, and so the politics all really blurred for me.
From the beginning it felt like Schiff had a chip on her shoulder, another early fault. She wanted you to know Arthur Miller got it wrong. She resented that portrait he had caused Salem to now be synonymous with. She went out of her way, it seems, to strip the ordeal. She presented the events bare, with no opinion other than that Arthur Miller was wrong. (This at times was jarring, especially when one has yet to understand Schiff’s writing style. Accusers are not written to “supposedly” have seen a witch, their hallucinations are written as events.)
What’s particularly disappointing is that once Schiff finds her voice the book becomes as interesting as I had anticipated, however it takes her nearly 400 pages to find it at length. A conclusion that depicts the teenage girl accusers as being oppressed puritan girls who were finally given a voice for a fleeting moment in their lives. A look into the modern Salem as it’s residents grow to accept the past that for so long they had attempted to hide in the shadows of history. These were interesting perspectives I would have liked to read more about.
No conclusions are given. Schiff makes no attempt at persuading the reader to believe the events were true, that the teenage girls were truly afflicted. In turn, she didn’t attempt to convince the reader who instigated the accusing. At least Arthur Miller tried to give a reason to the events, Schiff just tells you they happened. She dances around hysteria, dabbles in the possibility that the girls were persuaded by a village leader with a grudge against another family. Neither argument is discussed in particular detailed.
Victims are hardly given their due. Most are only present during their short trials and barely mentioned again. Some repercussions are discussed, but one has to pause to remember just which victim she’s referring to. (The fact that there is a list of accusers and accused, leaders, and town residents at the beginning should have given me a sign. They wouldn’t put it there if you didn’t need it.) More time is spent with the governing men, the jury members, and the town officials than anyone else and it’s never really explained why. It’s interesting contextually, but not much beyond that.
This was a slow read, and felt like it took longer than it did. I didn’t particularly enjoy the focus Schiff found for the large portion of the novel. However, I feel it could have been remedied at least some had she given an opinion as to the cause of the events, as mentioned before, and decided to better format the book. The chapters were on average around 50 pages long. Making a stopping point difficult to find if one didn’t intend to sit and read 50 pages in one sitting. (It was also difficult to pick up quickly on return.)
Oddly enough, I found myself enjoying the footnote text more than the body text. Often this is where Schiff placed interesting side notes; from modern references (she once quoted Dumbledore from Harry Potter), to amusing antidotes of a particular subject that didn’t directly connect to the narrative.
I enjoyed the few bright spots the book presented. I liked finding out more about the victims. The connections between Arthur Miller’s fictional characters and their real life counter parts were amusing. However, Schiff’s bland, yet honest, retelling of Salem in 1692 fell short. I just don’t care enough about who the men governing the town at the time were, if you don’t give me at least a suggestion of why they acted how they did other than they were Puritan leaders.
I’ll stick with The Crucible and my “It’s a Wicked Good Time” Salem shirt, and possibly use The Witches as nothing more than reference material.