Father of Lies, by Ann Turner. HarperTeen, 2011, 326 pages. Young Adult
There are a lot of reasons why the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 continue to attract attention. It’s a story that feeds into a lot of current political and sociological trends: feminism, environmentalism, paganism. Salem supposedly pitted free spirits against spirit enslavers, rebellious women against oppressive men, and a generous, earth-spirit religion against a narrow, vengeful, paternalistic dogma. What’s not to like?
That depends on where you’re coming from. The Salem mystique has been a lot of things to a lot of people throughout the years. Inhabitants of the actual town were very ashamed of their heritage until about forty years ago (corresponding with the seventies—imagine that!) when Salem became a haven—or possibly coven—of aficionados of the supernatural. It’s now known as “witch town” and is said to be quite lively around Halloween. Back in the fifties, Arthur Miller famously used history to express his disdain for Joe McCarthy with his play The Crucible—a staple for high school drama classes ever since. There’s a real history buried among the myths, but it’s hard to get a handle on it, especially when it concerns such an obvious misuse of power driven by such an alien (to us) way of thinking.
The usual take on it is that a few girls tried to break out of the rigid mold imposed on them by their society, but succumbed to hysteria when they were caught. Their claim to be possessed appealed to the superstition, prejudice, and avarice already present in the community, and the resulting travesty claimed at least 25 corpses in 16 months. A Break With Charity, by Ann Rinaldi, follows this interpretation. Elizabeth Spears’ The Witch of Blackbird Pond, while not directly about the trials, contains some elements of it, even though she’s fairly gentle with the Puritans. Celia Rees’s Witch Child, also a fictional account, completely buys into it, with a generous plug for paganism.
Two more recent books offer their own slant. Wicked Girls is told in verse, the chapters given to different characters: the pious, conscience-stricken follower; the fat, sly outsider; the bitter orphan; the jealous lover. All the girls are historical, but since little is known about their personalities an author is free to invent. There are perhaps too many voices: though all are identified at the beginning of each poem, it’s easy to lose track. The story is told in a series of vignettes, which is great for dramatic impact but a reader who’s not familiar with the history could easily founder in details. The author doesn’t beat up on Puritans too much: the motivation behind the girl’s accusations and resulting trials is not shown as religious, or not primarily—rather a complex scheme of envy, jealousy, boredom, revenge, one-upmanship, loneliness, neglect and longing. People being what they are, this is probably a fair picture. Power plays and loyalty shifts take place within the circle of girls, descending to the kind of catty behavior some girls today can relate to. Told from their point of view, the story becomes rather steamy and claustrophobic. And too long, until “The witch hunt is snuffed./The accusers dip/under the silent ice/of indifference.”
Lidda Johnson, the protagonist of Father of Lies, is another trapped soul in a repressive society, but the author is equally interested in exploring psychological conditions that would have been unnamed at the time. Lidda lives a spare life in Salem, but it’s not so quiet once a handful of girls start insisting that they’re being tormented by witches. She doesn’t know what to think when he starts appearing to her: a beautiful fantasy with long flowing hair and silver eyes and bare chest (like a romance-novel cover, though of course she doesn’t make that comparison), who identifies himself as Lucian. Only she can see or hear him. At first afraid, in time she comes to enjoy his companionship and caustic observations about the town and its inhabitants. Her mood swings are misunderstood by her family, who naturally wonder if she’s possessed also. The story comes to a head when her friend Mary Warren confesses privately that she and the girls have been lying, leading to a dramatic court scene.
There’s some interesting writing and details—Lidda hears things in color and sees things in scent, leading to some unusual comparisons. The author does a good job of sketching a bi-polar character in an age that can’t begin to understand or even speak about her malady. But not much happens and the characters are flat—some almost childish in their two dimensions. Lucian is not determined to be either a real spirit or a figment of her imagination: “Was Lidda mad, or was she saner than the villagers? You decide.” This seems like an abdication of authorial responsibility to me, but . . . you be the judge.
Readers should not seek for insight into actual Puritan beliefs in these novels. For instance, we’re often told that the Puritans forbade colors, and insisted on browns and blacks. But this was more a matter of economy than doctrine; wealthy Puritans—and there were many back in England—wore what colors they could afford, but avoided ostentation (as well they might, when compared to the frilled and flourished fashion of the times). They are also uniformly pictured as “dour,” but again, the dourness might have been more a matter of personality or circumstances. They lived a hard life in the new world, one that a people of less determination and reliance on God wouldn’t have survived.
That said, we shouldn’t whitewash something that won’t take paint. The Salem witch trials are a stain on Salem, but are they a stain on Puritanism generally? Superstition and avarice—sin, in other words—had their way there, and it’s hard for contemporary readers to know how large a part was played by religious belief. Several years ago Chris Schlet wrote a three-part article for Credenda Agenda that was well-researched and thorough. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available online anymore, but if you’re interested I would suggest contacting the magazine to see if you could get a reprint or back issue. American Vision has a CD called Puritans vs. Witches for $7 that might be worth a look. Whether looking for the best or the worst in the citizens of Salem, we must be wary of presentism, or the tendency to impose contemporary values on historical times. They had their weaknesses, and we have ours. God preserves us both.
See more thoughts on presentism in Is Historical Fiction Dead? For more YA novels that present a clash of ChristiFanity (or what passes for it) with other systems, see our reviews of Revolver, Where Things Come Back, and The Perilous Gard.