The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Cleopatra, the #1 national bestseller, unpacks the mystery of the Salem Witch Trials.
It began in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's daughter began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, but not before 19 men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death.
The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, parents and children each other. Aside from suffrage, the Salem Witch Trials represent the only moment when women played the central role in American history. In curious ways, the trials would shape the future republic.
As psychologically thrilling as it is historically seminal, THE WITCHES is Stacy Schiff's account of this fantastical story-the first great American mystery unveiled fully for the first time by one of our most acclaimed historians.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
You may think you know all about the infamous Salem witch trials, but after just a few atmospheric, meticulously researched pages of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Stacy Schiff’s book, you’ll realize you’ve been kidding yourself. The Witches is a lyrical and absolutely riveting portrait of one of early America’s darkest chapters. We were wowed by Schiff’s discovery of so many haunting new details about a seemingly typical Puritan community that collapsed spectacularly in the face of abject fear, paranoid allegations, and unchecked religious fervor.
Pulitzer-winner Schiff (Cleopatra: A Life) applies her descriptive prowess and flair for the dramatic to the Salem witch trials. The book is packed with details and delivered with a punch, but it suffers from a dearth of nuance. Schiff's passionate use of the active tense places the reader right in the midst of the action, about 15 miles north of Boston during the spring of 1692. However, this laudable effort also causes some confusion over place and time, and it's hard to distinguish the facts from Schiff's imaginative attempts at turning the trial reports into narrative action. There are disorienting shifts between passages in which the reader is immersed in the spooky, supposedly magical environment of Salem, and more prosaic sections describing what actually happened in the trials and town. Schiff provides background context for the events and focuses on the action, but her efforts to apply an overarching fairy tale theme miss their mark, and she avoids deep cultural, historical, and societal analyses of the trials. This retelling succeeds as a work of gripping popular nonfiction, but for those already familiar with the subject, it will serve only as light reading.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Ms. Schiff first promises a new look, but delivers a thematically disorganized mess. Just as she reveals an interesting perspective, she then peals off inane details about minor characters in a pattern impossible to follow. She never begins a sentence without a long introductory clause to hide the true import of her sentence. The tedium drolls on until I cried, "no mas!" A rare book I didn't finish.
Thoughtfully researched and beautiful prose to describe a fearful and shameful religious period of America.
Bored Me To Tears...!
I’m sorry to say that this one nearly bored me to tears (yes, literal and actual tears), which is a far cry from what I’d expected—and what Miss Schiff’s previous prize-winner, Cleopatra, invoked in me during the reading of it. I was ever so excited to start this one because I’d SO enjoyed Cleopatra—that one had me turning pages faster than any fiction thriller ever has and literally brought me to tears in the end—definitely the kind of roller coaster read that we all yearn for but wouldn’t dream of finding in a biography!
However, I found The Witches to be a muddled let-down from the very first page! A tremendous bore whose tendency towards superfluous purple prose didn’t have nearly the moving effect as it offered before. This one proved to be as laborious a task in reading as it must have been in writing, which is never the effect that an author wishes to achieve, I’d imagine. It skipped around from progressing through the timeline of events in its narration to delving into the most minute details of the backgrounds of even the most minor individuals—an enterprise to be applauded that her research yielded such the treasure trove of information, but a fact that severely slowed the progression of the narrative and made the following of it more difficult than necessary.
I felt like I was constantly juggling the backstory of each minister, shop keeper, servant and—Lord help me, each family line. Now, who refused to bring firewood to the new minister, and who first accused who of witchcraft because what (and whose cousin/sister/brother/niece/neighbor was that again)? That’s what it sounded like in my head with every page I turned! Ordinarily, such a deep understanding of the characters would be enriching to say the least, but this made me feel leaden down and burdened with the reading of the minutiae, like I was trudging through never-ending quicksand! This actually made it hard to get back into the timeline of events because I sometimes couldn’t remember where I’d even left off in the recounting before the meandering path of anecdotes about all of the interweaving families had knocked me off my reading compass. It was a lot like trying to follow a path already overridden with weeds (over-wrought in its attempts at setting the setting) only to be led off the path and back onto it again over and over by trails you thought you were following to stay on course.
Honestly, the reading of this would have been much easier and more enjoyable if Schiff had organized the information differently—shorter chapters would have been an immensely helpful start—so that the reader could more easily remember, categorize and process all of the moving parts of the story in a way that worked more like a novel, as her previous work did. Sure, there was a Shakespearean-like list and description of characters at the start, but even the use of that pulls the reader away from the flow of the work. The Witches would function wonderfully as a reference for an academic paper or the like, but not as a read for any sort of personal enjoyment, whether it had been based on fact or fiction. And this from someone who thoroughly enjoyed one of her other works. After all, as they say, nonfiction writing requires the finesse for story-telling of fiction authoring. Here, the finesse that I previously knew her for was missing. I would give five stars for the sheer amount of information presented here and for just how deeply her research went, but only one star for the way that it read. *