THE AFFLICTED GIRLS A Novel of Salem by Suzy Witten
Reviewed by Mike Gleason, PAGANPAGES.ORG (8/2/12)
The Afflicted Girls by Suzy Witten © 2009 Dreamwand (ISBN: 978-0-615-32313-8) Paperback 456 Pages $18.95 (U.S) & Kindle, Nook, iTunes, Google, Kobo eBooks ($6.15-$7.99)
I had planned to review this book long ago but, due to unforeseen circumstances on several fronts, it fell through the cracks. Having lived in the vicinity of Salem for decades (my last two children really haven't known any other environment) I always look forward to seeing how others see the events of 1692. I came from the Midwest and had studied a bit about the trials as a result of my interest in
Witchcraft, and was amazed to find myself more aware of some aspects of them than locals who grew up in the area.
The witchcraft trials of Salem, Massachusetts have become both infamous and famous. Their infamy rests on a solid historical basis – hundreds of people were accused of having congress with the Lord of Evil by a small group of youngsters; over a dozen and a half (nineteen to be totally accurate) were executed for this crime; many others spent months in dank confinement (some died as a result, although they tend to be overlooked since they weren't formally executed) ; families were destroyed – while the fame tends to come from misunderstanding. Salem today is a mecca for members of the current Witchcraft movement. Many of those individuals loudly proclaim that the “witches” executed died for the freedom of their faith when, in reality, they were “good, God-fearing Christians” who refused to admit to a crime they hadn't committed (even though such an admission would have saved their lives, but would have cost them their soul) . Those who died at Salem would, doubtlessly, be appalled to hear themselves being held up as martyrs by modern-day Witches and Wiccans.
This book takes a new look at the events of that short period (less than 1 year) of colonial history. And although it makes no pretense of historical accuracy it is the result of research and thus can serve as a reminder that there are multiple sides to every story. While we are used to perceiving Puritans as a dour, joyless group, we must remember that there were rebels among them, and not all inhabitants of the colonies were Puritans by any means.
Some preachers (Reverend Samuel Parris, for example) would preach hellfire and damnation while others might expound on God's love. Where Parris could see joy and happiness as a sign of lack of commitment to God's expectations, others could see those same attributes as a celebration of God's gifts to humanity. Parris' life had not been an easy one prior to his arrival in Salem Village (now Danvers) , but it had not been one of abject poverty either. As a purveyor of God's enlightenment he expected a certain level of deference and preferential treatment, but he was human enough to be
resentful (even spiteful) , and to show it, if he did not receive what he perceived was rightfully his.
Through the years the causes of the accusations and trials have been debated without serious resolution. This book continues that debate, while tossing in some ideas which have never been discussed (to the best of my knowledge) in the mainstream debates. It helps to “flesh out” many of the characters who were central to the action by considering them as living, breathing people who had all the feelings and desires of any human being.
The first half of the book is preparation for the introduction of the accusations of witchcraft. And the accusations begin, not as one might expect, but as a reaction to a children's game on a pleasant picnic. The events which precipitated the well-known onset of accusations come about because of a child's attempt to recreate something with an incomplete knowledge of the preparations of the ingredients.
Looking at the events from a fresh perspective opens up new possibilities. There were well understood tensions seething beneath the surface of this small New England village. There was the split within the parish with some wishing to terminate Reverend Parris' contract and others wishing to retain him; there were disputes about land ownership, the interpretation of wills (inheritance and disinheritance) , and hurt feelings enough for a major feud.
Ms. Witten has widened the net considerably through the introduction of sexual tensions and frustrations (which many have failed to consider, since we all KNOW that Puritan society wasn't interested in sexual matters) , not just among the adults in the community but among the adolescents as well. Bridget Bishop was the object of desire for some men (and the object of jealousy from some women) , but she wasn't the only desirable female in the community. Convention, then as now, was ambivalent as regards the sexual behavior of the members of the community.
While the events in Salem Village during the winter of 1692 are a matter of historical record, and thus somewhat limited in HOW they can be interpreted, the underlying motivation (s) and the thoughts of the individuals involved are largely unknown, thus allowing for a greater latitude in interpretation. The causes may be physical (the now largely discredited ergot poisoning) , psychological (mass hysteria) , a combination of both or something as yet totally unconsidered, and we may never know for sure. Ms Witten has offered another view of why things happened and, if nothing else, it is presented in a far more entertaining way than many such attempts.
Do not confuse this book with a historical account, which it is not. Do not expect great revelations. However, if you enjoy historical fiction, with fully believable characters, with a look at the sometimes dark side of human nature, you will probably enjoy this book. It has been out for a while, so you might have to spend a little extra time looking for it, but it will be worth the effort, I assure you.
Author's Notes: Suzy Witten's career spans twenty years in the entertainment industry: as a filmmaker, screenwriter, story analyst, and editor for film and television. A graduate of USC's School of Cinematic Arts, she was nominated for a Women In Film "Lillian Gish" filmmaking award for her dramatic film "Runaway Eden" about Hollywood's teenage runaways, and she was a Walt Disney Studios Fellowship Finalist for her screen story of Salem, "The Afflicted Girls." Alongside being a novelist, she works as a Public Affairs Media Relations Specialist, Writer and Researcher during disasters for FEMA. She resides in Los Angeles. THE AFFLICTED GIRLS is her first novel.