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The Witches by Stacy Schiff
Historical fiction

The Witches

by Stacy Schiff

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Quick take

A compulsively gripping and deliciously fun page-turner, filled with gossip, deceit, suspicion, and lots of creepiness.

Why I love it

I can't explain my obsession with the Puritans, but I know I have one, and I know I'm not alone. The strictness of the Puritan culture in the early days of American history has a sordid mystical quality that endlessly fascinates me. Just when I thought I'd read everything about colonial Massachusetts, along comes this latest tour-de-force from Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff. Perfect as a post-Halloween recovery, Schiff's rich social history is a compulsively gripping and deliciously fun page-turner, filled with gossip, deceit, suspicion, and lots of creepiness.

Like me, you will have to throw out much of what you thought you knew about the notorious witch trials. According to Schiff there is more misinformation about this American tragedy than actual facts. So, you will marvel, as I did, at how exhaustively and painstakingly Schiff recreates 17th century Salem—its fear and dread, hysteria and isolation, misogyny and madness. The Witches is also one of the most seamlessly colorful and atmospheric books I've read in some time. Against a backdrop of devastating winter, villagers revel in rumors and accusations are tossed like rutabaga stems, as ministers plot to keep a firm grip on their flock.

As the best-selling biographer of Cleopatra and Vera Nabokov, Schiff has a particular ability to bring to life historical figures in a rich environment. Salem is a playground of complex and fascinating people, with more characters than one could find in a Tarantino film. She reaps gold in particular with church minister George Burroughs, a villain out of the Simon Legree School of Baddies. Schiff's premise is that the nine-month trial wasn't about witchcraft or sorcery but rather an effort by Burroughs to instill fear and control throughout villages, particularly over young women.

Although you may think you know how this story ends, Schiff delivers a doozy of a conclusion that will keep you flipping pages long past bedtime.

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