Author skillfully guides us through Salem Witch Trials

Book Review: "The Witches: Salem, 1692," by Stacy Schiff (Little Brown and Company)

Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer-winning author of "Cleopatra: A Life," among others, and guest columnist at The New York Times, has written not only the most thorough but the most enlightening account to date of the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692. Before we can begin to understand the seemingly incomprehensible sequence of events that saw husbands accuse wives and children their parents, and ended in 20 deaths, we must understand the world in which it took place. Here is where "The Witches" breaks new ground, shedding light on the social and cultural context in which the witch-fever erupted.

The Puritan settlers of New England lived in a sea of uncertainty. Having overthrown their governor in 1689, they awaited a new charter from the British Crown which might upend their fragile young society at a blow. Bloody Wabenaki raids were a terrifying reality and major cause of settler deaths; at home, a host of everyday dangers took the lives of children. The tenets of Puritanism promoted spiritual insecurity: To be sure of salvation was, paradoxically, to render oneself unworthy of it. From the first, children were instructed to prepare for death and judgment, their imaginations crammed with lurid images from the Old Testament and their consciences rubbed raw by constant reminders that no sin was too little to send their souls to everlasting fire. Girls suffered crippling breakdowns over lines of Scripture; small boys fainted when informed they were to be sent away from their families to be servants.

Schiff is an incisive guide to the alien physical and psychological landscapes of 17th century New England, as adept with the larger picture as she is with the labyrinthine minutiae of neighborly squabbles, feuds over fences and pigs, and Puritan parenting. The devil is in the details, as he was everywhere else in early Massachusetts; Schiff uses them masterfully and with a fine sense of irony to build a picture of a world teeming with inexplicable happenings, racked with insecurity, torn by bitter contention, and ready to crack.

In January 1692, two girls in the household of the minister of Salem village began to contort and babble, to complain of bites and pinches and attempt to fly. Nearly the entire village visited during the following weeks to observe their strange behavior and venture explanations and assistance. Another girl fell afflicted, and another. The symptoms spread throughout a community certain its daughters had been bewitched. When asked to name their tormentor, the girls obliged. The rest is history; for the hows and whys, in a brilliant historical portrait never before painted, read "The Witches." (A word to the wise: don't be tempted to skip over the "Cast of Characters" that begins the book. It would be a sin to miss Schiff's delightfully witty, insightful characterizations.)

On sale October 27.

- Reviewed by Reva Sherrard