Novelist Smith (The Slow Kill, 2014) gives voice to a pivotal figure in an infamous period of American history.
Many people have studied the Salem Witch Trials at length, but the background and motivations of Tituba, a local slave woman, remain a mystery, and Smith seeks to fill in the gaps in her story. In this narrative, slavers kidnap Tituba from her South American village as a young girl, transport her to Barbados, and sell her into bondage. Later, she’s sold to Mr. Parris of Boston, and Tituba and her new husband, John, find things far less comfortable in America. Parris is a harsh, closed-minded man who eventually becomes minister of Salem Village. Tituba interacts with the villagers, attends church, provides food and service, and gives birth to a daughter. Yet her family lives on the periphery and remains firmly categorized as “Other.” When an unknown sickness manifests in several young Salem women, and people start leveling allegations of witchcraft, Tituba’s exotic customs and stories are immediately suspect. She finds herself at the center of a brewing storm of hysteria, imprisoned for months, and ultimately confesses to witchcraft to save her family. Smith paints a sympathetic picture of Tituba, portraying her as being as much of a victim as the other accused women and deftly weaving her fictionalized account together with the few known historical facts. She impeccably portrays Tituba’s relationships with her family, the supposedly bewitched girls, and the other victims who share Tituba’s prison cell. The book gives agency to a historical figure who’s customarily overlooked, and its theory about the cause of the supposed bewitchment is convincing: Tituba believes that tainted rye may be triggering the hallucinations and seizures. Yet if Tituba had dared give voice to her thoughts, it’s unlikely that anyone would have believed her. As a result, the novel implicitly offers up a remarkable question: if not for Salemites’ deep-rooted distrust of unfamiliar people and ideas, could the witch trials have been avoided altogether?
A deft work of historical fiction with a timely message about the perils of marginalizing and demonizing the “Other.”