Review: The Witches

October 27, 2015 non-fiction 28 ★★★

Review: The WitchesTitle: The Witches: Salem, 1692
Author: Stacy Schiff
Source: from publisher for review
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads

Summary: The big picture story was fascinating, but the trial details felt like boring lists and resolution was lacking.

“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.” (source) Even today, the reasons behind the accusations and persecutions  of this time remain a mystery.

After enjoying Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, I had high hopes for this book. It turned out to be a little more hit or miss for me. Parts were very good. The overall story was fascinating. I enjoyed the author’s digressions about the backgrounds of specific people and about details of life and religion in New England. I enjoyed the details of the specific trials a lot less. The outcome of the trials was essentially a foregone conclusion, so there was no suspense. The details of one trial were much like all the others, enough so that even with a detailed cast list, I had a hard time remembering people enough to be emotionally involved.

The main emotion I felt while reading this book was frustration. It was frustrating to hear about people making such crazy, illogical decisions. It was frustrating to have so many people it was impossible to keep track of everyone. And then at the end, it was frustrating that the author didn’t have much of an explanation for the events that occurred. The theory she advanced was too vague and it was unclear how much support there was for her particularly theory. Despite the parts I enjoyed, the book often felt like a slog to get through. If you’re considering reading this book, I’d highly recommend checking out Cleopatra instead.

28 Responses to “Review: The Witches”

  1. Jancee @ Jancee's Reading Journal

    I have a copy of this that I wanted to read for R.I.P. X, but I didn’t get around to, so I guess I’ll be doing it for Nonfiction November instead. I’ve been anticipating it for so long, so it’s a little disheartening to hear that Cleopatra was better. Still, I’m going to read it with relish and make the most out of it.

    • DoingDewey

      Haha, I always feel bad being the bearer of bad news on books people are excited about! Hopefully you’ll enjoy it more than I did 🙂

  2. Naomi

    A good historical fiction novel about the time soon before the Salem witch trials is A Measure of Light by Beth Powning. It’s about the life of Mary Dyer up until her hanging in 1660. It’s not about witches, but it does have elements of it, and of course the strict Puritan society that eventually leads to the witch trials. And, at the end of the book, Powning makes it very clear what is fact and what is fiction.

  3. Amanda

    If you’re interested in the Salem Witch Trials, I highly recommend reading the nonfiction about it. The true story is so delightfully bizarre that it’s better than any fiction. I had a whole course on just the Witch Trials in undergrad. Some of the books from the class:

    The Devil in the Shape of a Woman
    I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem
    Salem: Place, Myth, Memory
    Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft
    Salem-Village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England

    I thought with your interest in non-fiction, you might enjoy the list!

  4. susan

    Oh too bad. I had so hoped this one would be overall excellent. But it sounds like it’s fairly uneven. I will pick up Cleopatra first, which I have waiting for me on my shelves. Thx for the warning.

  5. Krysta @ Pages Unbound

    Too bad this one didn’t live up to expectations. I know someone interested in this part of history and I could have recommended it to her. Personally, though, find it really difficult to read about the Salem Witch trials. It’s just something that should never have happened.

    • DoingDewey

      It was really frustrating to read about! And while part of that was because the author didn’t capture my interest, part of was also because of how insane it is that people let this happen. I’d like to try another book on the topic, because I think it’s fascinating, but it’s possible that even told in a more interesting way, I’ll still find this story makes for a difficult read.

    • DoingDewey

      As you can probably tell from my review, this isn’t one I’m going to be urging you to move up on your TBR! It wasn’t bad, but there’s better narrative nonfiction out there 🙂

  6. Charlene @ Bookish Whimsy

    Ah the irrationality of the Salem witch trials annoys me too! I don’t think I would enjoy this as much then if that aspect was so glaring for you. And since the trial parts felt boring as well. It’s good that Cleopatra was much more enjoyable for you though!

    • DoingDewey

      Yeah, this isn’t a book I’m going to be pushing. It was alright, but I could see you being bothered by the same things that bothered me.

  7. Jennine G.

    I’m thinking some of those things won’t bother me because this is a topic I teach through the classic, The Crucible. So pure information, even if I have to make conjecture of it, is just more fuel to my class discussions! This would’ve frustrated you no matter what though…my students get so ticked while we read.

    • DoingDewey

      In that case, it sounds as though you might enjoy this more than I did 🙂 Do your students get frustrated because the answers aren’t known or because the whole situation was so illogical.

      • Jennine G

        I think the illogic-ness of it is just too much. It is pretty hard to understand how anyone could’ve fallen such crap – and yet we have a number of examples of large groups of people falling for all kinds of stuff that seems common sense to not follow.

        • DoingDewey

          I get that! Something the author said that I thought was particularly interesting was that witchcraft accusations were not so uncommon, but it was uncommon for adults to take them seriously and it’s not known why that happened in this case.

  8. Andi

    I used to enjoy books on this topic so much, but over the years I’ve read myself out of it to some extend. Your concerns with the book resonate with me, and I think I’d be frustrated too. On to the next!

    • DoingDewey

      I’ve gotten to this point with WWII books, for the most part. There are still books that come at the topic from a unique enough angle to grab my attention, but I’ve read so many books on WWII, I’m a bit burnt out on it.

  9. Geoff W

    I kind of feel like no one has sorted out the why behind this whole thing. I guess that’s why it’s so “mysterious” and sellable.

    • DoingDewey

      It’s true! I was thinking a lot about whether the author just picked a bad topic and the fact that we don’t know all the answers was inevitably going to make this a frustrating read. However, I just read Prince of Darkness, about the first black millionaire and while little is known about his life, the author managed to discuss the possibilities in a way I really enjoyed. So I think this problems with this book could have been solved by picking a topic where more was known, but they also could have been solved by writing about this topic in a more engaging way.

  10. Sarah @ The Country Bookworm

    Dang it, I was hoping to pick this up soon. I really enjoyed Cleopatra, and love anything to do with Salem/witches. I did just buy The Penguin Book of Witches, by Katherine Howe, and I think she does a good job concerning the issues you listed with this book. It doesn’t just focus on Salem, but that is Howe’s area of expertise. I also just started reading Witches in America. It’s more about the history of modern witchcraft, but also interesting.

    • DoingDewey

      I really liked Schiff’s Cleopatra, so I would recommend checking out some other reviews on this one. It might just not have worked for me. It sounds like you’re doing some great seasonal reading with all of your books about witches! I don’t typically read seasonally, but I’ve really enjoyed picking up some atmospheric reads this fall 🙂

  11. Karen @ One More Page...

    I really wanted to read this because I’m fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials, but I’m happy that I read this review first! I may check out Amanda’s recommendations instead now. Thank you for your review!

    • DoingDewey

      I’d also maybe check out some other reviews, but based on my experience, this isn’t a book I’d particularly recommend. Hopefully you like this one better than I did or are able to find some other books on the topic that you enjoy 🙂

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