Salem Witch by Patricia Hermes is the first book that I've read from Kingfisher's My Side of the Story series, and I quite enjoyed it. This series features turbulent times from history (the 1665 London plague, the settling of America, World War II, etc). A story is told from the perspective of a child living during that time. The reader then flips the book over to read another perspective of the same story, told by a different child.
Salem Witch is set, as you might expect from the title, during the Salem witch trials of 1692. Elizabeth is the only child of relatively affluent and educated parents. Her father is a merchant who owns several ships, and her mother, atypical for the time, knows how to read. Because of her slightly unconventional upbringing, Elizabeth is more independent and free-thinking than most of the other Salem girls. Her best friend is a boy named George, the son of a local magistrate. George loves art and drawing, but is being pressured by his father to put aside such frivolous pursuits and take on the more practical career of law. Although the two are close friends, their different views on the witch trials put them at odds with one another.
I've always had an interest in the Salem witch trials, having grown up 20 miles from Salem. My sister actually lives in Salem now. I think that Patricia Hermes did a nice job in this book of creating a fictional story, but populating it with actual people and events (and even dialog from trial transcripts) from the time. The story begins as several young girls start having fits, and claiming that witches are tormenting them. The first "witches" accused are social outcasts: a slave, a homeless woman and child, and a cantankerous old woman, all of whom have no one to speak for them. However, as the accusers start to feel more power, and as the climate of fear and dread darkens the community, more mainstream citizens are also targeted.
The outspoken Elizabeth doesn't believe in witches, and is convinced that the accusers are malicious and attention-seeking, part of a conspiracy to stir up trouble. This puts her in danger, and also puts her at odds with George, who is being pressured by his father to believe the accusations. George beseeches Elizabeth to be more careful about what she says, and she starts to wonder if she can trust him at all. This dynamic between the two friends, who care for each other, but aren't sure if they can trust one another, works well in the My Side of the Story format. We leave Elizabeth's story uncertain of George's actions, and only find resolution at the end of his story.
This book is a quick read, but one that tackles a difficult subject. It is not for the faint of heart (hangings, the imprisonment of a four-year-old girl, and references to Indian attacks), although I think that the author did a good job of conveying these events without being sensationalistic. She also does an excellent job with the atmosphere of the books, using the gray Salem weather as counterpoint to the fear and superstition that are ruining people's lives. Elizabeth is a good choice of narrator: young enough to be troubled and frightened by the events, but educated enough not to be swayed by them. George has more of an insider's view, as his father presides over some of the trials, and his story gives some peripheral insight into the influence of other recent events on the trials.
It's amazing in some ways to read this book and think that people were actually killed based on the unproven accusations of a group of discontented girls. But then again, this sort of thing has happened more recently with the epidemic of repressed memories of childhood abuse (though the accused were not generally hanged). I think that it's useful to study the Salem witch trials as a means of understanding and of preventing such out-of-control behavior from happening again.
I think that the Salem witch trials and the My Side of the Story format are a good fit, giving the reader sympathy for the accused and for the frightened majority who went along with the trials. Using a boy and a girl as narrators is also a way to make the book more accessible to boys and girls. I think that this book will be a hit with middle grade kids who enjoy historical fiction, especially those living in New England. I recommend the newly published Salem Witch for this year's Halloween reading.
Book: Salem Witch (My Side of the Story)
Author: Patricia Hermes
Publisher: Kingfisher (Houghton Mifflin)
Original Publication Date: October 4, 2006
Age Range: 10-14
Source of Book: Review copy from Houghton Mifflin
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.