These are upsetting tales and Schiff writes movingly as well as wittily; this is a work of riveting storytelling as well as an authoritative history. Schiff’s explanations for the events are convincing.
Schiff weeds out popular myths and misconceptions of Salem to tell readers, in painstaking detail and while referencing a huge cast of characters, how the wretched events of 1692 unfolded. The result is a spellbinding work of nonfiction that reads like a thriller with Harry Potter-esque flourishes: monstrous wild hogs, people disguised as cats, cats disguised as toads, muttered incantations, and flying objects aimed at enemies.
Schiff’s glib, compendious and often maddening account of the events of that fateful year, does a great deal to punch up the story, but little to explore and still less to understand its significance....Schiff here broadens her lens, like an artist turning from portraits to teeming allegories: Rembrandt taking up the work of Bosch. But a crowded canvas does not a probing history make, as The Witches powerfully demonstrates.
In The Witches, Schiff is an industrious schoolmarm; unlike Miller, the news she bears has little to do with tragedy, and even less to do with conclusions. She has produced a nearly 500-page history that feels uncannily like a (slightly overstuffed) biography, in which even the most theatrical plot points are treated as plain, hard facts to be marshaled and accounted for in a rigorous chronology.
More perplexingly, Ms. Schiff has decided not to really address the social, cultural and psychological reasons behind Salem’s witch hysteria (much the same way she curiously declined to grapple with Nabokov’s literary achievement in Véra). She mentions various factors in passing...But she never investigates such dynamics in any depth
Schiff might have given in to passions as strong as Martha Carrier’s. But her intelligence, pithy prose and storytelling flair carry the day, sweeping the reader along to a realm at once forbiddingly foreign and frighteningly familiar.
A former editor at Simon & Schuster, Schiff is a publishing industry veteran rather than a historian. She, surely, can be trusted to focus on the crowd-pleasing elements of the Salem crisis, rather than getting bogged down in the pettifoggery of historical accuracy. Yet the result, The Witches: Salem, 1692, is a disappointment.
This is precisely what Schiff offers – a comprehensive illumination of an unsettling period of American history that continues to captivate our cultural imagination. Her book is a brilliant feat of research, and she organizes vast streams of often fragmentary historical data into a lively narrative that has an almost cinematic immediacy.
Overall, though, The Witches is so detailed and comprehensive that it can be dull and hard to follow in stretches. The cast of characters at the front of the book contains a daunting 90-plus names. If you're looking for an exhaustive, blow-by-blow account of the trials, The Witches is excellent. But it may be too much information for those with a more casual interest.
This book stands out for its meticulous attention to detail. (Paging through the notes section is an interesting read in itself.) Ms. Schiff brings the past to life with such vivid descriptions as the day’s weather, or what someone looked like. This makes the people of that time seem more dimensional and, as a result, their worlds and experiences more tangible.
Her accomplishment is all the more remarkable because there are no records of the court sessions — Schiff sifted through archival material as well as historical accounts written by witnesses years after the epidemic.
As Schiff moves into the trials and convictions, her narrative slows down, its language tightening beneath a surfeit of detail: Cotton Mather’s self-serving observations, Stoughton’s cruel reversal of Rebecca Nurse’s acquittal.
Schiff reminds us why history gets rewritten each new generation. In the same way that the witch trials were a powerful metaphor for the era of the blacklist and the loyalty oath, Schiff’s broader portrait of an entire social structure torn apart from within is uncomfortably contemporary and closer to home. The Witches is compelling reading, a native American horror story that lives just over the horizon of our worst fears.
Schiff is a masterful researcher, and the fact that she is able to conjure this world vividly enough to induce goose bumps is impressive...But partly because the witch trials themselves were repetitive and convoluted, the amount of detail Schiff has been able to resurrect weighs down the middle of the book.