A judge who presided at the Salem witch trials comes to repent of his role.
Although leavened with wit, British novelist and historian Francis’ fictionalization of Samuel Sewall’s predicament is a cerebral, scrupulous, often abstract story. Thirty-eight-year-old Sewall—not only a judge, but “a Council member, merchant, private banker, householder and family man”—is a soul striving for decency in a challenging era. The Puritan community in Boston in the late 17th century, bounded by ocean on one side and wilderness on the other, faced many threats, including the distant but powerful control of the British king, the French, the Indians, attacks, and massacres. As the novel opens, Sewall’s involvement in the trial of seven pirates leads him to regret that he may have compromised his principles and shown weakness. And then reports begin of witchcraft and spectral visitations in Salem. Francis, who previously wrote a respected biography of Sewall (Judge Sewall’s Apology: The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of the American Conscience, 2005, etc.), seems magnetized by the perpetual dilemmas of morality, grace, and faith as embodied in an honest man, hampered by “fear of authority, or at least the desire to placate those in power,” now confronted by a rapidly spreading contagion of either devilry or lying children. As the trials begin and then the hangings, and the spate of accusations gathers pace, the community begins to grow uneasy and ultimately hostile to the judges and their methods. Meanwhile, Sewall continues his relentless self-questioning. Francis’ measured narration allows the suffering, piety, and tragic delusions of events to emerge with clarity. Sewall is both perpetrator and witness and, eventually—through his expressions of atonement—a voice of conscience.
A finely crafted consideration of responsibility within a familiar historical tale.