Renner’s debut novel uses her ancestor’s life story to reflect on the paranoia and persecution in Massachusetts during the Salem witch trials.
Rebecca Blake Eames (1641-1721) was Renner’s ninth great-grandmother. The novel opens in 1692 on a familiar scene: slave woman Tituba is showing two girls a folk magic trick. All seems harmless until the girls start convulsing—apparently victims of witchcraft. This incident, which sparked Salem’s witch trials, is best known through Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Renner’s parallel story is set in nearby Andover, Massachusetts, where news of these strange afflictions arrived months ago. A feud between the Swan and Eames families comes to a head when Rebecca curses the patriarch publicly: “Damn you, Robert Swan!...And may the devil himself visit your home!” Her seeming familiarity with the devil leads to her arrest on charges of witchcraft, and she and her son, Daniel, are thrown in a dungeon. Renner paints a harrowing picture of primitive prison life. Beatings, fleas and slop buckets are only the beginning; worse, Rebecca suspects that 4-year-old Dorcas Good, also imprisoned, has been sexually assaulted. Through flashbacks, readers learn that Rebecca believes she is being punished for committing adultery early in her marriage. She fakes a confession about her involvement with Satan and is sentenced to hang with eight others. She’s saved by chance—they are one noose short. The prose memorably uses period props, as in “the breeze extinguished the tallow candle.” Renner’s deep research is especially evident in descriptions of illnesses; she writes of “jail fever,” apoplexy and gangrene, which necessitates a grisly amputation. Historical figures like Cotton Mather and Judge Hathorne fit in neatly, and the close third-person narration allows access to Rebecca’s and her husband’s thoughts. A subplot about their daughter Dorothy’s romance with Samuel Swan and her foiled abduction by Indians sputters but doesn’t distract from the central tale.
An intimate fictionalization of a dark incident from Colonial history.