In Six Women of Salem, author Marilynne K. Roach offers a detailed account of the famous witch trials through concurrent narratives of six women: Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop, Mary English, Ann Putnam Sr., Tituba, and Mary Warren. These six were carefully chosen to represent not only accused and accusers but rich and poor, slave and free, servant and master. Through their various perspectives Roach recounts the events of 1692 in almost day-to-day detail—events which affected not only Salem but over twenty communities nearby.
The overall narrative is chronological with the author toggling between one viewpoint and another. Scholarly prose describing the events as they happened is preceded by fictionalized accounts of the viewpoint character which allows the author to speculate on what each woman was thinking and experiencing while maintaining historical accuracy. Roach is careful to make it clear when she is imagining what someone thought and when she is simply reporting relevant facts; she sets the fictionalized portions apart by italicizing the text. But as the author points out in the preface, even the fictionalized portions are based on careful research into the lives of these women and the climate, culture, politics, religion, relationships and geography that shaped them and the events they witnessed and participated in.
The author's purpose is to help us see these women in cultural and historical perspective as real women whose experiences shaped history. The popular picture we have of the Salem witch trials has, as the author says, "...passed into American folklore as hardly believable events played out by incomprehensible characters...all of whom are portrayed as symbols and stereotypes rather than real people like ourselves." But understanding who these women were, what their hopes and fears were, what their circumstances and motivations helps us understand the Salem witch trials in more depth; it makes it all real.
In the case of Tituba, for example, we learn what a slave like her might have experienced, details oft life on a slave ship, what living and working conditions would have been like on a Caribbean sugar plantation, what expectations she might have had to meet, what punishments she might have endured, and the overall tenuous place she had in her master's home. We learn of the political unrest, invasions by the French from Canada into New England,and fears that they would instigate a slave rebellion with promises of freedom for those who rose up against their New England masters and sided with the French. We come to understand Tituba not just as a woman falsely accusing others but as a woman afraid and in a dangerous, life-threatening situation in which she was not trusted. If she made things up to keep herself alive, the reader wonders, who could blame her?
Roach's approach results is a kind of cross between textbook and creative nonfiction with the scholarly prose predominant. If a reader expects a good curl-up-in-front-of-the-fire story or a quick read, she will be disappointed. There is far too much information for a simple, straightforward narrative. But for those who want to really understand what happened in Salem in 1692, Roach's book is invaluable.
Marilynn K. Roach is an independent scholar, historian and illustrator and an established expert on the Salem witch trials. She was one of the associate editors of the Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt and author of The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege. She resides in Watertown, Massachusetts.
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