Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem 1692 was an incredible disappointment. I’m an avid reader; two of my favorite subjects are history and the supernatural. I’m enthralled by both fictitious history and the bloody reality of our collective past. Therefore, when my favorite non-fiction author published a work on the Salem Witch Trials – combining history and the supernatural – I was thrilled. Schiff’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning work, Cleopatra: A Life, had taught me nearly as much about the ancient world as my university class, “Roman Achievement.” Schiff painted ancient Alexandria so vividly that, should I ever invest in time travel, the Egyptian city will probably be my first stop.
Cleopatra’s clever nature, her humor, her strife, it all beat like a living heart off the pages in Schiff’s biographical work. I expected The Witches to deliver a a similarly educational but moving portrait of New England’s dark history. After reading Cleopatra, I had a keen grasp of that brief period in Roman history and one woman’s dramatic role in shaping an empire. I hoped after reading about Salem, I would have a better understanding of what led to the mass hysteria and murder in Massachusetts. My hopes were soundly dashed around page 203.
Thoroughly researched, with frequent moments of humor and dry wit, The Witches has vast potential! Unfortunately, the pace lagged. What started as a muddled dialog between seemingly countless members of a severe and fearful society, interrupted with dark descriptions of 17th century life in New England, only tumbled further into obscurity as the pages turned. In my estimation, the organization of the book was doomed from the start: intended as an elucidating walk through the trials, line-by-line, the reader instead feels trapped in the audience of a confusing opera without a program.
Schiff’s prose – and Cleopatra‘s promise – kept me reading consistently until I realized with horror I had used nearly two months of precious reading time on a book that wasn’t getting intriguing. I skimmed the rest of the lengthy chapters, hoping beyond reason there would be some explanation, some justification for my struggles. Alas, The Witches offered no true retreat, no wellspring of knowledge.
Expectations: the name of the road leading to disappointment. Perhaps my own expectations for The Witches – a non-fiction work on one of the gloomiest periods in American history – were too high, and so they were bound to be dashed. There is the possibility Schiff’s seminal work was Cleopatra, never to be equalled. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood. While disappointing, I will return to The Witches; I’m still hungry to know why those girls convulsed and writhed and screamed about devils and demons. Was it purposeful? Did a 12 year old really knowingly send her elderly neighbor to the gallows? Why?
Next Halloween I’ll try again, under a full moon with the wolves howling, fear mongering conservatives scratching at the door; surely then The Witches won’t disappoint.
3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Witches by Stacy Schiff”
Interesting post. I too have read “The Witches” and part of “Cleopatra.” I was disappointed in “Cleopatra” and didn’t finish it. It’s been awhile, but I remember that there were so many lines like “she probably felt,” or “it was likely that she then….” that I became frustrated. I got the impression that there just isn’t enough actual historical evidence for us to really know Cleopatra in an unbiased way. Having said that, maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind. I might give it another try. I did slog through all of “The Witches,” but I did find much of it tedious. I agree with you that the organization didn’t work well for me. I was looking for more explanation and less detail of who testified to what on what day. Still, I did learn quite a bit from the book.
I, too, found the book to be surprisingly boring. In spite of the interesting subject matter and interesting information that was presented I just could not seem to “get involved” in the material. I kept slogging onward in the hope of finding something to ignite my interest, but from beginning to end there was nothing. I hate to say that reading this book was a waste of time, but it really was just that.
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