The Witches: Salem, 1692

Since the Puritans, full of shame, did their best to obliterate all records of the 1692 Salem witch trials, the true story of what happened has been hijacked and twisted, most notably by Arthur Miller in his 1953 play The Crucible. The Pulitzer-winning Schiff, whose most recent book was Cleopatra, takes it upon herself to separate the truth from rumor (for instance, no one was actually burned at the stake in Salem), which is a pretty daunting task since the alleged acts of witchcraft had little basis in reality. The true story, though, of girls convulsing in the courtroom and accusing their neighbors of bewitching them, of husbands accusing wives, of a child younger than 6 having her mother hanged, is almost too painful to believe.

Schiff is a masterful researcher, and the fact that she is able to conjure this world vividly enough to induce goose bumps is impressive. She makes concrete the suffocating, terrifying Puritan environment, in which everyone feared eternal damnation, women had no way of expressing themselves, and Native Americans or the French could launch attacks at any time. But partly because the witch trials themselves were repetitive and convoluted, the amount of detail Schiff has been able to resurrect weighs down the middle of the book. Through no fault of hers, it can be difficult to keep track of characters, given the dizzying volume of accusations, confessions, and overlap between the two (fortunately, there’s a handy cast list). Still, her surprisingly sympathetic analysis shines as she searches for the true causes of this mass hysteria. B+