In The Witches, Stacy Schiff brings readers an astonishingly well-researched, well-written, and downright thrilling piece of non-fiction about the life and times of the Puritan communities in New England which hosted the American witch trials of the late 1690’s. Although this is a topic that has been discussed at length in both popular and academic literature, it remains a source of horror and intrigue to Americans. Schiff argues that this ongoing obsession is rooted in the fact that, despite more than three hundred years of review, the activities and accusations of the time continue to make little sense and research still fails to offer a convincing explanation for their occurrence.
From the first sentence of the book’s outstanding Introduction — perhaps the most incredible opening chapter to a non-fiction book I have ever read (parallelled possibly by Michael Pollan’s Introduction to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a link to which can be found at the end of this blog*) it is clear that Schiff is not simply writing a book to analyze the circumstances surrounding the witch trials, or to discuss the causes or ramifications thereof, but to put us in into the very hearts and minds of the Puritans who experienced them.
Meticulous researched and painstakingly crafted, The Witches is written so that every sentence helps us see more clearly a cloudy and complicated era. She paints of picture of a hardscrabble life, filled with toil, fear, uncertainty, and unendingly complicated and oppressive religious obligations. Notably, women and girls faced a particularly challenging life in the New World where they were forced to pioneer an entire existence for themselves and their families in a hostile locale while living in subservience to the men in their villages and churches, often with endless hours of work in and outside the home and absolutely no power in either realm.
Schiff’s work is far more personal that it seems possible given the amount of time that has passed since the events highlighted into her book took place. She uses her primary and secondary research not simply to report the facts, but to bring them to life. Each player in the book becomes a full-fledged character, with their strengths and flaws presented so that we can attempt to better understand their role in the trials. Schiff paints a picture for us that clarifies the mind-set of the people living in the time — both the godly and ungodly motivations — so that we can see how the events, while nonsensical to us, were not wildly out of the ordinary for the Puritans.
I highly recommend this book for any history or non-fiction lover; anyone who finds themselves fascinated by witchcraft; or anyone looking for an excellent book for a cold winter night. I only wish I had read it before I visited Boston and Salem this November.
*Here is the link to the Introduction to Pollan’s outstanding 2006 work of non-fiction, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: http://michaelpollan.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/omnivore_excerpt.pdf