Tuesday, October 25, 2016

REVIEW: The Witches by Stacy Schiff

The Witches
by Stacy Schiff

Publisher: Little Brown and Co
Page Count: 498
Release Date: October 27, 2015
Format: Trade Paperback

How got: free copy from GR giveaway

First attention getter: subject matter


From GoodReads:

The panic began early in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's niece began to writhe and roar. It spread quickly, confounding the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, husbands accused wives, parents and children one another. It ended less than a year later, but not before nineteen men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death.

Speaking loudly and emphatically, adolescent girls stood at the center of the crisis. Along with suffrage and Prohibition, the Salem witch trials represent one of the few moments when women played the central role in American history. Drawing masterfully on the archives, Stacy Schiff introduces us to the strains on a Puritan adolescent's life and to the authorities whose delicate agendas were at risk. She illuminates the demands of a rigorous faith, the vulnerability of settlements adrift from the mother country, perched--at a politically tumultuous time--on the edge of what a visitor termed a "remote, rocky, barren, bushy, wild-woody wilderness." With devastating clarity, the textures and tension of colonial life emerge; hidden patterns subtly, startlingly detach themselves from the darkness. Schiff brings early American anxieties to the fore to align them brilliantly with our own. In an era of religious provocations, crowdsourcing, and invisible enemies, this enthralling story makes more sense than ever.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 3

I had to laugh at the timing in which I received this book. I had just finished a fictional work on witchcraft in the modern world and the history of the main family. So I was on a witch high when I got this book. Imagine my excitement to get such a large volume on the history of the Salem witch trials, the United States, biggest historical example of a witchcraft hunt. Unfortunately, this volume did not meet most expectations.

The author definitely did her research. She goes in depth on many aspects of Puritan society and the history of the colonies, witch trials, and the superstitions of the Puritan brand of religion. At times, the author's research seems to veer away from the witch trials themselves, but everything ultimately gives background and depth to the trials themselves and the ladies involved.

Ultimately, I got what I wanted out of this volume. I learned the intimate details of the lives of the accused, their accusers, and their judges. I learned little known aspects of this well known historical event such as the different type of accusers and how closely families stuck together or how quickly they fell apart under the burden of suspicion and death. However, beyond the wealth of information and the joy of learning such, this book suffers from many flaws.

The author tends to get wordy, she'll use five words were one will do. I am not sure if she was aiming for readability, to make the work more relatable to the common reader rather than just scholars. If so, her plan backfired. The reader can get bogged down in so many words that the general point of the paragraph, page, or chapter gets lost.The author's tendency to wander also doesn't help with this.

The author tends to wander from subject to subject, on one societal aspect to another randomly. She'll go in depth about a particular person's witch trial; then three paragraphs later, she'll talk about the superstitions of Puritan society or the history of its ministers. There are some stretches to this work where you could have five or six subjects crammed onto one page, varying from paragraph to paragraph. Some consistences from chapter to chapter would've helped this book.

There are also narrative issues. Many of the trial scenes, and I stress the word SCENE, read as fictional rather than nonfiction. Now in and of itself, this aspect wouldn't be as glaring if the author used the same narrative style for the rest of the book. However, she does not. So the trial scenes are glaring in there scene setting rather than flowing with the rest of the work.

At the end of the day, I got what I wanted out of this work. I learned more about a seminal event in American history and intimate details of those involved. I only wish, however, that the author had paid as much attention to the nitty-gritty details of writing as she did to the historical facts presented. Formatting is screwy, words pile up on top of each other, and a wandering narrative drag this nonfictional work down. Would I seek this work out again? Maybe if I had a specific question on a party involved with the witch trials. I would not, however, seek to read this work again for pleasure.

Note: Book was received for free from the publisher via a Goodreads giveaway in exchange for an honest review.


  1. I also read this and found it rather wordy. I really enjoy the subject matter (I went to Salem many years ago for a day trip and it was interesting) but I thought there was too much of an info-dump format of writing, especially in the beginning. Ultimately it wasn't what I was expecting or looking forward to-- just okay for me.

    1. Man, I'd so enjoy going back east and exploring the areas this work covered. Talk about soaked in history... It didn't work out as I hoped, either, but I can't fault it for all the intimate details of the proceedings it explores. I'm now reading a fictional work on the Salem trials, from the POV of one of the accused (Sarah Carrier). Reading it after this nonfiction book has given it so much more depth and emotional pull. So points in this book's favor there. :)