Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book review: Deliverance from Evil, by Frances Hill

The Salem witch trials have become such a fixture in American history that most readers will already know the who, what, when, and where about the subject. What's missing is the how and the why. In this fictional dramatization by Frances Hill, a British historian who has written several nonfiction books about the events, the cause isn’t mass hysteria or ergot poisoning, as others have posited, but vengeance and simple malice.

The novel opens not in Massachusetts proper but on the Maine frontier, a “devilish region full of Baptists and Quakers,” a place where departures from Puritan doctrine are tolerated but whose villages are being burned and destroyed in Indian raids. George Burroughs, the Harvard-educated former pastor of Salem Village and the beloved father of seven children, barely escapes the attack on the settlement at York with a young woman, Mary Cheever, who loses her father to the violence.

Once they reach Wells, the surviving settlers regroup and decide whether to move back south for safety. Meanwhile, in Salem Village, a children’s fortune-telling game inspired by “slave magic” spirals out of control, with young Betty Parris’s terrified fits and nightmares motivating others less innocent to pretend the same. Village leader Thomas Putnam sees his chance to even old scores, inciting the “afflicted girls” to point fingers and claim they’re being harmed by witches. Grudges over lost inheritances, land disputes, long-standing jealousies… all of these things fuel Putnam’s ruthless plan to take revenge on those who wronged him and his supporters.

Women (and a few men) accused by the girls of devilish harm are seized, examined, and imprisoned. The witch-hunting frenzy so obsesses the people that even pious, respected matrons like elderly Rebecca Nurse are charged based on “spectral evidence.” The long arm of the law, such as it is, even extends north to George Burroughs, whose money disputes with the men of Salem Village still fester, years after his departure.

The plot proceeds methodically, laying out events from January through August of 1692 as they occurred, and the deliberate pacing takes a while to catch at the emotions. The scope is vast, moving from the Putnam household to Judge Hathorne’s merciless courtroom to the Burroughs clan in Maine. While the events are terrifying, it’s difficult at first to feel attachment to the characters, most of whom are cruel, cold-hearted people. Eventually the focus zooms in more closely on George and Mary, who fall in love and wed, and they emerge as worthy protagonists. Mary’s hopeless quest to convince Salem’s leaders of her husband’s lack of guilt is commendable yet heartbreaking.

Hill’s expertise enhances her account; nearly all of the characters are based in history. Most importantly, her interpretation is convincing, providing food for thought on how a deadly mob mentality can overtake reason and cause irreparable harm. The executions of blameless victims could have been prevented at several steps along the way, but those in charge ensured that they weren’t. In contrast to the frontier wilderness of Maine and Massachusetts, which is vividly described, the village setting is accurate but utilitarian, serving merely as background for the tragedies on center stage.

Although it takes time to gain traction, this chilling account, unflinching in its telling, is a quality addition to the collection of novels about the injustice done at Salem.

Deliverance from Evil was published by Overlook in March in hardcover at $25.95, or $32.50 in Canada (320pp, including two-page author’s note). The UK publisher is Duckworth (£6.99, paperback, forthcoming in June).

8 comments:

  1. Good review. Just started reading this and liking Hill's take on the episode. Malice, greed, jealousy, and family feuds definitely played a part in the real drama. As her nonfic book "A Delusion of Satan" is one of my favorite accounts of the trials, I had hoped her novel would be worth reading, and so far, it is.

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  2. So you're reading it too? Good deal - I'll look forward to your review, if you end up writing one. I haven't read Hill's earlier histories but have enjoyed Mary Beth Norton's version, which is the first I remember reading that discusses the connection with happenings in Maine.

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  3. Great review. This sounds right up my alley. Half of myy mom's family was here during all this and living in Massachusetts and Maine though there was nothing very exciting abou them, but I have always been attracted to novels like this anyway.

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  4. With the witch trials, the banality of evil meeting the fact that often people are sheep: a disastrous combination.

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  5. There's nothing like a repressive regime for bringing out the very worst in people. Add rigid religion (often laced with fear and superstition) and you add a sense of justification for cruelty and mean-minded pleasure in others' misery.

    I don't know about the Salem witch trials, but the ones held in medieval Germany were driven by greed as much as the usual petty vindictiveness. Prosecution of "witches" and confiscation of their property was a very profitable business indeed.

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  6. Saw this one in B&N the other day and almost picked it up. Sorry I didn't. It sounds great!

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  7. This sounds like an interesting read. I have always been interested in this historical event - I will have to look into this one. Thanks for the informative review.

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  8. It's interesting, I've recently come across several novels about witchcraft in medieval Germany - not a subject many authors have written about. I don't recall greed being a particular motive in this book, rather revenge for past slights or perceived wrongdoings. And envy because one's neighbors were undeservedly wealthy.

    One of these years I will get to visiting Salem. I used to live right close by, too.

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