When looking for a small town with more literary history, you could be hard pressed to find a place better than Salem, Massachusetts. Not only is the town the home to such literary classics as The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables but the site is a font of inspiration for books because of the horrific witch hunts, trials, and general hysteria that took place there in 1692.
The witch trials, I think, will always be a source of inspiration for writers, and will always draw reader because the hysteria and executions are shocking even as we struggle with our own modern problems of intolerance. It seems unbelievable that something so silly and foolish, and so clearly the product of fear and ignorance, could have happened on our soil even before we were a country.
The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 left 19 people executed and dozens more accused of witchcraft. Dreams and visions were used as trustworthy and legal evidence in a court of law and fear ruled over all. Despite eventually apologizing and attempting to restore the names of the accused and executed, the damage was done. Lives were ruined and the city forever associated with these horrific events. For a brief history of the trials, the Smithsonian has an easy to digest article here. The history of the witch trials lives on in this little city, but in an unexpected way. Witches, Wiccans, and Pagans have taken back the city and every October, the city becomes Halloween central for the whole month. The witch trials are a sad and shameful period in our history, but reading about them is important to understand our own present prejudices and as a way to prevent our own fears from making us cruel.
Witches, magic, and the witch trials in general always make for a popular book, so here are a few titles to keep Halloween going throughout the year.
Witch Child by Celia Rees (a 2002 Best Book for Young Adults selection) – Mary is a girl raised by witches on her way to the New World from England. After seeing her grandmother killed horribly for witchcraft, Mary is determined to make her way in the new colony of Massachusetts. Befriending other lone passengers on the voyage and then Native Americans once she lands, others in the Salem community start to notice. And they start to talk about witchcraft. Set before the hysteria of 1692, this book still is a good example of the fear and mistrust that Mary encounters and that the accused of witchcraft encountered as well. Another great part of this book is an investigation of what life what like in the colonies and how hard it was to be different.
Gallows Hill by Lois Duncan – When Sarah moves to Missouri from California she has trouble fitting in and it doesn’t help that after she volunteers to play a fortune teller at a Halloween fair that she starts to have dreams and visions about Salem, Massachusetts and the witch trials there. While not set in Salem, Sarah’s visions take place there and make the reader curious about the real Gallows Hill. While it is the real place where the witches from the 1692 hysteria were hanged, there is not a consensus on where it actually is located. There is Gallows Hill Park in Salem, but many experts find that the historical description of the place don’t match up to the present location.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katharine Howe – Although this is a book in the adult market, it has some great teen appeal. Connie, a young graduate student moves back to her family home in Marblehead after her mother asks her to help deal with Connie’s grandmother’s house. Soon Connie finds herself in the middle of a mystery involving a key, an old family Bible, the name “Deliverance Dane,” and a physick or spell book. Learning more about the history of her ancestors’ connection to the Salem Witch trials, Connie discovers some shocking truths. The author is actually related to two people who were accused of being witches in 1692, and their stories inspired her to write the book.
Pick up one of these books and allow yourself to be transported back to a time when fear and intolerance rules. Sometimes reading about these issues through the lens of history allows us to see how similar they are to our similar situations.
Further reading includes:
–Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill
-The classic, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
–Time of the Witches by Anna Myers
-Anna Tschetter, currently reading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell