How do you turn the Salem witch trials – surely the most horrific and fascinating episode of collective madness in American history (until Donald Trump perhaps) – into a tedious slog? Stacy Schiff found a way.
She’s clearly a talented historian; she’s amassed a mountain of information about this darkest of years, 1692, when an entire community descended into delusion and executed 20 women for imaginary crimes.
Sadly, she’s not much of a writer. It feels as if every single scrap of that aforementioned information has ended up on the page even though much of it belongs on the cutting room floor. This book is twice as long as it needs to be and is full of unnecessary, eye-glazing detail doled out in chronological order. Even worse, Schiff barely even tries to analyse or explain how this madness took root – just throws her hands up and declares ‘it’s a mystery’.
It’s unfocused and scattershot. There’s no clear thesis or theme or narrative throughline. Instead of zeroing in on a handful of the most interesting characters from that time – and using them as vehicles to illuminate what went so horribly wrong in Salem – Shciff introduces us to hundreds of people, who ultimately prove impossible to keep straight, in an effort to tell an exhaustive history.
The effect is just plain exhausting.
Next: A thriller.