As history, The Witches is intelligent and reliable; as a story, it’s a trudge over very well-trod ground.


SALEM, 1692

The Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer provides an account of a foundational American tragedy of mass hysteria and injustice.

At its best, the latest work from Schiff (Cleopatra: A Life, 2010, etc.) ably weaves together all the assorted facts and many personalities from the 1692 Salem witch trials and provides genuine insight into a 17th-century culture that was barely a few steps away from the Dark Ages. Religious belief and superstition passed for reality, science had no foothold whatsoever, and both common folk and their educated ministers could believe that local women rode broomsticks, turned into cats, and had the power to be in two places at once. Furthermore, it was a world in which an accusation was as good as a conviction, where seemingly possessed girls flailed and contorted themselves in court, while judges bore down upon helpless defendants with loaded questions. The accused, under the spell of their own culture, could likewise turn on themselves—and not just to save their skin. “Confession came naturally to a people who believed it the route to salvation, who submitted spiritual biographies when they entered into church membership, who did not entirely differentiate sin from crime,” writes the author. “By the craggy logic of the day, if you had been named, you must have been named for a reason. Little soul-searching was required to locate a kernel of guilt.” While Schiff has marshaled the facts in neat sequential order, the book lacks either a sense of relevance or compelling narrative drive. The author writes in a sharp-eyed yet conversational tone, but she doesn't have anything new to say or at least nothing that would come as a revelation to even general readers, until the final pages. This is the type of book that yearns from the beginning for a fresh approach or a new angle.

As history, The Witches is intelligent and reliable; as a story, it’s a trudge over very well-trod ground.

Pub Date: Oct. 27, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-316-20060-8

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Aug. 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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