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.
House of Ann Putman Jr, Off Dayton Street, Danvers, MA, where Mercy Lewis was indentured, ca. 1891
The real Mercy Lewis lost her family to an Indian raid when she was just a child in Maine. In fact it is believed she may have seen them all killed and carried that gruesome memory with her to Salem. An orphan, the only way she could survive was to be indentured as a servant, first to the Reverend George Burroughs, who was also executed in Salem as a witch, and later the family of Thomas Putnam, where she met Ann Putman, Jr. (Lucy in this book). She had virtually nothing and could only survive on her wits and her employer’s good graces until her term of indenture was over, which typically lasted seven years. She would have no prospects for marriage until she was free. If she had a child while indentured, her length of term would be increased. Witten endows Mercy with herbalist and midwife skills and introduces the possibility that what happened with those crazy Salem kids might have been drug-related (from a hallucinogenic plant). It’s not a bad twist to take. Her hypothesis may be right or wrong, or possibly partly the truth. It’s why Salem still fascinates — it’s about human nature, the not-so-nice side of people. It didn’t take much for fear and accusations to take root, whether drug or mischief-fueled.
Literary license is okay in a historical novel to some extent, but I had some major questions and quibbles while reading The Afflicted Girls. Witten changed the most well-known of the accusers, Ann Putnam, Jr.’s, name to Lucy — maybe to differentiate her from her mother, who also was an accuser. But it actually made it more confusing for me, waiting for the real Ann Jr. to show up. Also, a scene at Gallows Hill had a cherry-picked assortment of the accused. There was also a daring jail escape, which was beyond fictional becoming pure fantasy. Considering how meticulously she had tried to depict the Village in earlier chapters, it seems strange to get some of these most famous facts wrong. The author’s note stated that the book started as a screenplay, so some of these changes may have been made in that light, to bring her most flamboyant “characters” together in one big scene. But there is so much inherent drama and pathos in the true story that it seems unnecessary to tinker so much with the facts. Sometimes it felt as if there were parts that were written for the book, and added scenes put in to sex things up.
Deposition of Mercy Lewis v. Susannah Martin
Which brings me to my major bone of contention with the novel. It’s probably easiest to use the movie Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd as a similar example. Sweeney Todd had beautiful music and great acting by Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, but that was all but drowned out for me by all the endless, repetitive decapitations — one after another after another after another. The sex scenes had the same effect in The Afflicted Girls. It’s not bodice-ripping romantic novel sex. It’s repeated, multiple scenes of rape and unpleasant coupling by unpleasant people. Salem Village surely had its share of horrible men and women, but were they all sexually messed up or predators? Witten may be trying to comment on the Puritan ethic and attitudes toward sex, but the reader is the one who gets degraded too many times along with poor Mercy. I’m not sure it would have been appropriate to make her a feminist hero, either, but she is victimized or sexualized by basically every man who meets her, and she doesn’t become much more than a victim, buffeted about by the claustrophobic and brutal world she inhabits.
Unsavory sex aside, there are some interesting aspects to The Afflicted Girls and I definitely felt like I was back in Salem Village, it’s just not a nice place to be.