Source: Downloaded from Audible
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Cleopatra, the #1 national bestseller, unpacks the mystery of the Salem Witch Trials.
It began in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's daughter began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, but not before 19 men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death.
The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, parents and children each other. Aside from suffrage, the Salem Witch Trials represent the only moment when women played the central role in American history. In curious ways, the trials would shape the future republic.
As psychologically thrilling as it is historically seminal, THE WITCHES is Stacy Schiff's account of this fantastical story-the first great American mystery unveiled fully for the first time by one of our most acclaimed historians.I’ve held off writing this review for a little while because I really wanted to love this book. So much has been made of Schiff’s Cleopatra and that the Salem Witch Trials took place on my home turf, I was extremely excited to read this one and see what light Schiff could shine on those dark days. In some ways, she did just that, but at the same time made it less accessible to readers.
There are a plethora of books that have been written about the Salem Witch Trials, it’s not a new and unique subject, but Schiff brings an all-encompassing approach to this history. Her strength is that she doesn’t just focus on the key witches and accusers, but looks at a wide range of players, the intricacies of the witch trials, the backstory of the Salem region, Cotton & Increase Mather, and the families whose lives were torn apart during this time. You can get a true sense of how expansive this event was for the region. One angle that I thought was unique to The Witches was the focus and depth of coverage on the Mathers, Increase and Cotton. Both were extremely integral to the trials and I think that a discussion on them brings a lot to the complete understanding of how the events unfolded.
That being said however, there is such a thing as too much detail. While this is a bit of exaggeration, it felt like Schiff covered every witch trial in excruciating detail. There is a reason most books on the subject focus on the big names; they are the most interesting! Many of the trials covered were, quite frankly, extremely boring and I found myself tuning out; the names blended together and I lost interest and didn’t pick it back up for days. The other area that I believe suffered from too much attention was the Mathers. The detail just bogged down the forward progression of the book, there was just too much to digest it all. Even if you were working on a dissertation I think you would quickly lose interest in this book.
I really can’t recommend this book to my everyday reader friends – I struggled through the whole thing and really would have put it down earlier if I hadn’t been listening to it on audio. If you are going to be writing on the time period, the witch trials, or some of the names, then you might find this book helpful.
I tend to prefer to read non-fiction books on audio because a narrator can help bypass some of the density of fact bombs. While the narrator was very good here, even she couldn’t help too much in getting through the slog of details here. I would listen to this narrator again, don’t get me wrong there – I liked her voice and the way she read, it was just dense reading.
You can listen to a sample of the audio production here:
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You can watch/listen to a discussion of this book with the author as part of CSPAN's BookTV segment.
Also by Stacy Schiff:
Cleopatra: A Life
Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov
Saint-Exupery: A Biography
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