The Salem witch trials have always held a fascination for me. I've had a hearty dislike for Cotton Mather ever since reading The Crucible in junior high. It's difficult for me to relate to a learned man who can be forward-thinking in relation to disease, by encouraging inoculations against smallpox, but be so backward-thinking when it came to witchcraft in Puritan New England. It's hard not to think that there might have been a misogynist angle to his attitudes, as Mather called one of the accused, Martha Carrier, "A rampant hag." And in reporting the trial of Bridget Bishop in his Wonders of the Invisible World, he wrote "John Louder testify'd, that upon some little controversy with Bishop ... he did awake in the Night by moonlight, and did see clearly the likeness of this woman grievously oppressing him; in which miserable condition she held him, unable to help himself, till near Day. He told Bishop of this; but she deny'd it, and threatened him very much."
Mather is just a shadow figure in The Afflicted Girls, but the petty neighborly conflicts that Mather took such copious notes of that were at the root of a lot of the evil goings-on in Salem Village in the late 17th century are well-described in this fictional account. The author, Suzy Witten, takes her time building up the very large cast of characters and their layers of history, jealousy, and petty grievances in the daily life of Salem Village, and does it well. She has done her research, incorporating the threats of disease, Indian raids, and poverty that also were factors in what happened. A real sense of the hard choices facing a young woman, no matter what social strata she belonged to, is also well-delineated. A daughter of a prosperous merchant or gentleman may not have to perform the menial household tasks of an indentured servant, but she had about as much freedom as did Mercy Lewis in the male-ruled Puritan society.
Witten takes an interesting tack, even a risk, in making her protagonist 19-year-old Mercy Lewis. Thanks to the internet, the Salem witch trial transcripts can be read, and original documents even viewed. One can quickly learn that it's a big departure from history making Mercy a heroine, as she was one of the most frequent and vocal accusers of witches in the trials. I had a real shock of sadness and excitement when I discovered last year that I was actually descended from Sarah Averill Wildes, who along with Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Good and Susannah Martin, was hanged as a witch in Salem on July 19, 1692. Since I found our Salem connection I have been cruising the internet, visited Salem and its environs, and read quite a few books on the subject, fiction and non-fiction, to try and learn as much as I could about my ancestor. One of the things I discovered was that Mercy Lewis was one of the accusers of my ancestor, Sarah Averill Wildes. But no hard feelings. I don't mind the author's angle, and I liked Mercy as a character in this book.