I recently had the task of reading Stacy Schiff’s The Witches (full title is The Witches: Salem, 1692). I write “task” instead of “pleasure” for two reasons. First, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed reading 400 pages about a mass hysteria that turned into tragedy and gross injustice, in which 20 innocent people lost their lives. Second, I wasn’t really sure if I liked it while I was reading it.
I think Stacy Schiff had an incredible challenge: Bring the reader into Salem, 1692 – introduce them to all relevant characters – outline what happened in the order that events occurred – and give appropriate backstory/information whenever needed. Considering the cast begins with 20 victims (to say nothing of accusers and judges), that’s a lot of people to wrangle.
Now that I’ve finished, I’m on the positive side – I liked Schiff’s The Witches. However, I do feel that it has an interesting battle, and that is narrative vs. history. Throughout the book, I felt the two were constantly at war with one another in Schiff’s writing. She would attempt to give each chapter a narrative, but in the end most felt bogged down by superfluous information.
It was great for historical relevance but not so much for storytelling. So I want to write about that: How does a nonfiction writer balance the battle between history and narrative?
The challenge of finding a narrative
To begin, it depends on what you’re researching. Schiff begins her book by stating that the puritan settlers of Massachusetts were studious record keepers…except when it came to 1692. This means that she had to fill in a lot of gaps. To give contrast, I’m reading another piece of nonfiction right now called Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation (quite a topic change, I know) and, not only is this book discussing much more recent history, the author had the ability to actually interview most who were directly involved.
So, right away Schiff’s writing must rely heavily on inference and intuition, which can blur the line between fiction and nonfiction. This may sound like an advantage when it comes to establishing narrative but think again. Most historical nonfiction authors have two priorities: Get it right and make it interesting.
Schiff was immediately challenged with the first priority. When the information isn’t readily available, more research is needed. She had to expand her scope – bring in tangentially related information. When developing a narrative, widening your scope is the last thing you want to do.
A plot is often a very simple thing that is then dressed up by character, setting, and other elements. For example, Star Wars can be boiled down to “hero saves galaxy” without losing its essence. The plot of the Salem Witch Trials is that innocent people were wrongly accused and convicted of an impossible crime – but how do you get there when many details (in some cases whole defenses) have been omitted or destroyed.
A weak plot begs for outside help – but that outside help can overwhelm and distract from the initial goal of writing the story. You see this in fiction – certain authors can fall more in love with “world building” than with telling a story. If too much attention is paid to details – or supplemental information – without enough devoted to core knowledge, the story can fall flat. In short – it won’t be interesting.
But with a topic like the Salem Witch Trials, is that even possible?
Does history need a narrative?
It is difficult for me to write about Stacy Schiff’s The Witches without getting lost in the history. This is, to me, essential knowledge for every American (or at least my fellow Massachusetts residents). Today, my state likes to hold itself up as a land of reason, science, and logical debate (…and sports teams), so it is an important reminder that we have come a long way, and that there were serious consequences when we abandoned our better senses.
So, which such a packed slice of history – does narrative really matter? Isn’t simply recounting the trials enough? I would say no. Schiff’s biggest triumph is that she brings her reader into the mindset of the 1962 puritan. Through this lens, we are better to understand truly what happened – beyond the simple order of events.
Saying that innocent people died in the Salem Witch Trials is like saying the Holocaust happened. It loses a lot of its resonance and meaning without discussing the “how” and the “why.” These events cannot be made simple by vague summation. Even growing up, I thought that disasters like these happened because of “evil people” or something like that.
Evil people don’t exist and believing they do only opens the door for more bigoted leaders to come to power. In what narrative she can salvage, Schiff presents Salem as a dark place in more ways than one. The people they are constantly afraid. Real world dangers such as disease and Native Americans mix with supernatural ones like the devil and demons. Add to it a poor understanding of science and a constant persecution complex and this community was ripe for disaster.
But even that isn’t the whole picture. There were grudges to be settled, opportunists doing whatever they could to get ahead, teenage women suddenly thrust into a position of power, wrongs to be avenged, and simply matters of colonial politics.
Again – it’s a lot. What happened over a couple months needs the preceding years to explain it in proper context.
I’ll leave these thoughts with this question. What is more interesting, saying Giles Corey was executed for witchcraft, or this:
The final impact of Stacy Schiff’s The Witches
In the end, I feel that Schiff’s The Witches is a weak narrative saved by its historical significance. Given her obstacles, I think she did the best she could. Much of the real procedure has been lost, letting us only speculate as to the true nature of this delirious period of history. We have an incomplete picture but, through her supplemental research, Schiff goes a long way to fill in the gaps.
I just wish it didn’t derail the main action so much. It also doesn’t help that each chapter is roughly 40 pages – or that one of her asides was to mention Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series (in the same chapter that discusses alleged sex abuse in 1692 Salem – I’m not kidding).