Despite this book getting mostly negative reviews on Goodreads, I found myself enjoying it immensely. It is a historical novel of the Salem Witch Trials, and is written by a historian about characters that featured prominently in the trials. I expected her tone to be more about facts and dates than is wanted in a novel, but Francis Hill did quite a good job of portraying characters and emotions that felt real.
One of the largest criticisms I encountered was the introduction of too many characters. I must disagree. Yes, there were a great many of them, but the actual trials encompassed hundreds of people and created a panic throughout an entire colony. The need for many characters cannot be ignored or the story would seem flat and, worse, inaccurate. The novel tells the story of George Burroughs, a pastor whose strength and heroism are envied by many men in the Massachusetts colony, despite the fact that he has relocated to Maine. He is falsely accused of being in league with the devil–of, in fact, being the leader of the entire coven of “witches.” It also follows his (third) wife, Mary, who along with their friend Peter attempts to prove George’s innocence and have him acquitted. All the while Hill cuts back to the duplicitous scheming of the Putnams, Parrises, and other prestigious religious leaders of the colony. She makes it clear that the accusations are less about eradicating Satan and more about disposing of political and social enemies, and explores the psychology behind the mania of the trials.
Another criticism was that her writing was disjointed and difficult to follow. Again, I must disagree. In the first few chapters, yes, the writing is a bit choppy. But as the novel moves along, things become much more coherent and, well, story-like. I get the impression that Hill was simply trying to rush through the introductory chapters in order to get to the more interesting and important events. While some may prefer to read chapter upon chapter of introductory material in order to be able to keep up with the rest of the story, I enjoyed the fact that she didn’t bore me to tears making every detail clear in the first third of the book. It presents a challenge while reading, and allows the reader to make discoveries later–both things that I admire and prefer in novels.
Hill is adept at creating tension in the reading and building it between the characters. She skillfully arouses suspense and frustration in her reader as well. I am furious with the women, young and old, who put on their acts of writhing and moaning, supposedly in pain from the tortures of the accused witches and the devil himself; they are condemning innocent people to death for their own malicious, sadistic pleasures. I feel Mary’s fear and pain as she battles desperately to save the husband she truly loves. The awkward scenes between Peter and Mary as he realizes he has developed feelings for her are charged with emotion. For someone who deals in facts, Hill does a decent job of fleshing out her characters.
Naturally, the novel has flaws. Were it a sweeping success and international bestseller, I’d have been disappointed in the quality of the book. However, taking it for what it is, which is a rather unknown book without hype that I stumbled across while browsing, I am impressed with its entertaining and emotional value. For those interested in this compelling time in history, I’d say definitely read it.