The hysteria over witchcraft that enveloped Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 endures as one of the most riveting and horrific episodes in our collective past. Before it was over, 19 people were hanged as witches and one man was pressed to death. Hundreds more were imprisoned in hellish conditions while the British crown confiscated their property.
The event has inspired a slew of novels, movies and nonfiction tomes. But with SUSANNAH MORROW: A Novel of Salem, Megan Chance makes this well-trod historical ground look fresh.
The novel blends factual and fictional characters to build a mesmerizing portrait of a society strangled by misguided religious fervor, sexual repression and emotional alienation. Chance's deft use of detail and archaic speech patterns anchor the story, giving it weight and authenticity. At its heart, though, this is not a novel of history or social mores, but an intimate love story.
It's three main characters --- 15-year-old Charity Fowler, her father Lucas and her aunt Susannah Morrow --- take turns telling the story in first person. The narrative focuses on them, never stepping back to allow a broader view of the events.
The story opens with Charity watching as her mother, Judith, lay bloody and dying moments after giving birth. Her father rushes in from the storm. He has brought Judith's sister, Susannah. The two have not seen each other for 17 years, but their connection is palpable as Susannah leans over her sister.
"But then, my mother smiled and it was not a feeble smile like the ones she'd given me or my father," Charity observes. "It was the first real smile I'd seen on her face since the labor had begun and with it came a light in her eyes that stunned me, that raised a blinding hope in my own soul."
A few minutes later, Susannah removes the hood of her cloak, revealing a beauty the reader instantly recognizes as dangerous --- even though Charity does not.
"She was so beautiful that for a moment I fancied 'twas not the fire's gold she was reflecting but some light that came from inside her, something so bright that I suddenly knew where my mother had found the will to birth the baby. She had caught some of that spirit in Susannah Morrow's face. I wondered that it had not been enough to keep her alive."
Susannah is not just beautiful, but sensual, mildly irreverent and scented with the seductive hint of a disreputable past. That she is also nurturing, perceptive and loyal tends to get lost on the women who envy her and the men who lust after her.
Among those men is Lucas, a man so hell-bent on righteousness he fears the sin of looking at his own daughters with pride. When he finally gives in to his desire for Susannah --- and then repeats the lapse a number of times --- it's sexy in a way only resisted passion can be. Here the prose approaches romance territory, stopping just short of slipping into it.
Says Lucas, "I braced my hands on the edges of the barrel and rocked her until the lid became unsettled and I felt the beer spilling over my fingers; I smelled the yeast and malt of it, filling the air along with her scent, lemons and musk and sex."
All three of the central characters feel real, but Lucas is the most compelling. Fearful of making his daughters weak, he denies both them and himself the comfort of a touch or tender word. He's so tortured by his feelings for Susannah he convinces himself that she really is a witch when others make the charge.
The book makes no attempt to answer the question that has lingered for 300 years --- what allowed Salem to be gripped by such cruel insanity? This book trades in relationships. Let scholars grapple with the big societal issues.
Susannah's experiences as an accused witch are based on the experiences of several real-life women who were branded as witches. Revealing Susannah's ultimate fate would ruin the fun. That would be a shame, as this is one of the most entertaining novels of the season.
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Holt on January 24, 2011
Susannah Morrow: A Novel of Salem