Reading is the only thing in the world I am good at. A lifetime of reading, fifteen years of working in bookstores, and libraries, and an obsession with the written word makes me qualified enough to talk someone's ear off about books. Now I am getting more ARCs than I have room for in the house. Let me get back to reading them!
Yesterday my husband saw me with this book and said, "You can't still be reading that. You've been at it for more than a month." I was lucky enough to get an ARC from Little Brown through a giveaway listed on Shelf Awareness, making me grateful enough to read every word of this book, or I might have given up on it.
However, as I slogged my way through it, I found parts of it very interesting. I am completely, totally fascinated with the Salem witch trials. I have read a lot of books about it, and if I were to ever do a research paper that would require a lot of dusty sources, Salem would be at the top of the list. I have read a lot of books where the authors made a vague mention of the fact that court transcriptions were badly kept, and extremely confusing to piece together, but Stacy Schiff makes an emphatic point that it can difficult to piece together the tenor of the trials because of the crazy transcripts, and missing pieces of the puzzle. It made sense then, all the books that I read that left me dissatisfied because the conclusions seemed like pure speculation. It also made sense why this book was a little dull to read. So many books that use Salem as a setting, or a piece of research, tend to fill in the cracks of history, and all those missing pieces, which makes for better reading, but is not the true facts of the trials. I could appreciate The Witches: Salem 1692 for this reason. (The author's copious notes in the back were great, but in my ARC edition were a little confusing to read since they were not numbered.)
The book focused a lot on the judges, the ministers, and the outlying characters of the Salem witch trials, including Increase and Cotton Mathers who wrote a lot about the trials, even though they witnessed only a little of the action first hand. The accusers and the accused of the trials were not discussed in nearly as much detail, which was a little disappointing to me, but I can understand there is not a lot of solid sources about them, and therefore hard for a researcher to paint an accurate picture of them. (Six Women of Salem by Marilynne K. Roach is an excellent book that focuses on 6 of the accused. Stacy Schiff references this book in her notes.) Because there was not a lot of information on the people most affected by being accused, or by being accusers, I was a little bored by this. It does talk a lot about things I hadn't much considered, such as the constant fear of violent Indian raids, and the frustration the congregation of Salem must have felt over the constant turnover of ministers. There was a little information about the politics of New England while it still answered to the crown of England, and how that affected the major deciders of fate in the trials. Schiff is very careful not to draw conclusions to what may have caused the people of Massachusetts to freak out over 1692 that lead to so much destruction in a community.
On the whole, I would say this is not a bad book, but you have to be very dedicated to, or interested in the Salem witch trials to make it through this. If you are not (even if you are) this book reads like a well-written, much noted, witty textbook; a good source, but a textbook nonetheless. This is not light reading. It is not easy to get through, it is not a quick read, and there is probably more in depth research out there. Just reading Schiff's sources impressed the heck out of me, and made want to read those papers for myself.