Here is a novel “ripped from the headlines”…provided you found the headlines in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Yes, we’re talking about the infamous salem witch trials. With a cameo role by Ray Bradbury’s ancestor, accused witch Mary Bradbury.
Veteran journalist Kolb anchors this historical fiction to the fate of Mary Bradbury, the only convicted witch to escape with her life (from a fetid Boston prison). The two main characters in this story are the Rev. Cotton Mather and the invented character, Hopestill Foster, brought to the new world as an indentured servant. Much of the book is in flashbacks, as in the first half of the book a fanatical Mather interrogates Hopestill, delirious in the grip of the “Small pocks.” The belief in witches is mind-boggling to the modern secular mind, but it was all too tragically real then and there. The Puritans have to answer not just for the witch hunt (a useful term they bequeathed to us!), but for their brutal treatment of all dissenters, especially the Quakers. Other real people populate these pages, such as the outspoken and charismatic Anne Hutchinson (hounded out of the colony), the magisterial families of the Cottons and the Mathers, and the heroic Maj. Robert Pike and Mary’s husband, Thomas. And of course there are the Indian tribes with their shifting alliances and loyalties. This is very much the story of the hapless Hopestill, who is adrift between Indian and White society but who never loses his essential decency. Along the way there are “monstrous” births (Devil’s spawn), switched infants, purloined letters—all in a miasma of toxic righteousness. We have always felt ambivalent about our Puritan forebears, forebears who founded Harvard College while the wilderness still threatened them, and at the same time believed in witches and that God sanctioned their killing. Kolb tells the story well. The flashbacks are a particularly good narrative device, and the prose matches the unrelenting drama. Helpful cast of characters, afterword, etc. provided.
Long after the book is closed, the reader will be pondering that time and place and how it still reverberates in the American psyche.