My grandmother once told me that I should try to learn something new every day. After reading Rosalyn Schanzer’s Witches: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem, I think I’m good for a few weeks. Schanzer’s accurate retelling of the Salem Witch Trials is so full of polished, accessible information that it will appeal to novice student, seasoned researcher, or anyone with an interest in the trials. As I began reading, I was first struck by the vast amount of information contained in such a short work. The hefty size of the reference and bibliography section bears witness to the amount of accurate, revealing information she includes.
Schanzer’s work is also full of the unexpected understandings. I know, right? Who would have thought there was anything new to learn about the terrible period of Early American History? Although I could easily see this informative text used in a classroom, it is not overly teach-y or preach-y. The use of primary documents supplied throughout not only backup Schanzer’s assertions, but give voice to those falsely accused of witchcraft, and the witch hunters who persecuted them. The mass hysteria we learn, had much more to do with politics, jealousy, and family loyalties, than it did with true fear of the unknown. Much ado about nothing!
As well as authoring the text, Schanzer also provided the artwork interspersed throughout the work. To assist in development of the story’s plot and mood, the author created woodcuts reminiscent of their 17th century counterparts. The black and white illustrations add an air melancholy to the already gloomy story, and the hint of red in each reference the Puritans' belief in an invisible world, full of witches, demons, and monsters. The stunning illustrations also include an introductory chart of the story’s players, which not only reinforces the included biographical sketches, but assists in the development of the plot, as much of the artwork seems to tell its own story, not merely duplicate the poignant story.
Before I go much further, I think I should say I’m an enthusiast of anything dealing with Salem. After reading the Hawthorne’s novel in middle school, (yes, I know.) I couldn’t wait to see the House of Seven Gables in person, or the old port, or Pioneer Village. High school brought Hester Prim’s letter and Arthur Miller’s disheartening play, and believe it or not, my sister and I spent one Halloween there, foggy weather, costume parade, and all. I read the book, expecting the same old information about witches, judges, silly young girls, and unfortunate slaves. What I came away with was a deeper understanding of the origins of the trials, and just how deeply they have impacted our society to this day. I also found poetic irony in the central idea which Schanzer shares. For a country which prides itself on being one of the leading powers in the world, our view of it has changed very little since the trials. Drama concerning politics, jealousy, and family loyalties continue to take center stage in our country’s government as they did over 300 years ago. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Schanzer’s work is not merely well researched, the supporting documentation she shares, along with the primary sources included, makes this a work worthy for any classroom or history bookshelf. However, because of her remarkable insight into the causes and results of the Salem Witch Trials, coupled with her outstanding illustrations, this is definitely a must read not only for those already interested in the Trials, but for those just looking for a good informative read. Bravo!
Citation: Schanzer, R. (2011). Witches: The absolutely true tale of disaster in Salem. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.