An account of a 17th-century American woman who was charged with witchcraft.
Even history buffs may have missed the curious tale of Unise Cole, an early American settler who was repeatedly accused of being a witch during her years in Hampton, New Hampshire, in the 1600s. Cole was publicly whipped, set in stocks, and put on trial twice in her lifetime, but ultimately never executed for her supposed crimes. She remained such a local legend over the years that the town publicly exonerated her on its 300th anniversary in 1938. To date, she’s been the subject of radio dramas, poems, and even a 2013 album by the rock band Telergy, featuring Twisted Sister’s singer/songwriter Dee Snider. It’s the kind of story that writes itself, but despite a thorough amount of research, Lassiter (The Mark of Goody Cole, 2014, etc.) stumbles in the execution. An author’s note alerts readers that this is a work of “creative nonfiction,” meaning that she’s expanded or imagined scenes where the historical record fails. It’s an interesting, potentially perfect approach to this bizarre story, except that it lends the book a jarring tone; it shifts at breakneck speed from clinical reporting of the historical record to flowery, overly descriptive scenes of Goody Cole and her suspicious neighbors. This choice also results in occasional, weirdly archaic asides (such as a description of one person as “feeling stronger in spirit but still as weak as a day-old shoat”). There’s even inexplicable editorializing, as when Lassiter offers “condolences” to William Cole, Unise’s husband, for staying married to his troublesome wife for three decades. More problematic is the book’s overall structure and organization. To give readers a complete understanding of Cole’s world, Lassiter provides exhaustive, impressively sourced records of each neighbor and town tragedy, and each instance of persecution of local Quakers and clashes with Native Americans. But this account frequently loses sight of Unise herself, and only flimsily connects her life story to wider themes of paranoia and hysteria in the Puritan community. Although early America enthusiasts will jump at the chance to read more about pre-Salem witchcraft trials, this book doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its subject.
An impressively researched but tonally and structurally uneven work that loses its fascinating subject in the details.