Book Review: THE WITCHES: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff


The “average New England churchgoer absorbed some fifteen thousand hours of sermons” in a lifetime, Stacy Schiff reveals in her meticulous and disturbing history of “America’s tiny reign of terror”: “The Witches: Salem, 1692.’’

“On intimate terms with the supernatural,” Puritans were repeatedly reminded by their ministers that the devil was “watching, wishing, snatching, to devour us.” In their zeal for religious vigilance, the godly people of Salem “stripped the calendar of every festival and holiday,” which only made the risk of bewitchment worse. After all, Schiff writes, possession “rarely occurs in the absence of intense piety.”

With “The Witches,’’ Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and author, most recently, of “Cleopatra,’’ draws on a huge body of scholarship as well as primary sources to synthesize her own erudite chronicle of a community in crisis, weeding through centuries of accreted mythologies to tell, from its strange start to its wretched finish, what actually took place in several localities north of Boston at the end of the 17th century. She tells us what happened there. But the bigger question, of course, is why?

While acknowledging the established frames of interpretation — adolescent psychology, the politics of gender, issues of class, and a dozen more — one of Schiff’s strongest contributions to this American horror story is her constant reminder that while we may never be able to definitively explain exactly why 19 people (and two dogs) were executed for witchcraft in Massachusetts (owing in part to a concerted effort to expunge any public records), we can still learn something from it. “The Witches’’ is not merely the story of the Salem witch trials — it is a cautionary account of our human tendency “to take that satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous [and] drown our private guilts in a public well.”

The horror began in January 1692 in the Salem home of minister Samuel Parris. His 11-year-old niece Abigail Williams and his 9-year-old daughter Betty complained of “prickling sensations . . . bites and pinches by ‘invisible agents.’ They barked and yelped. They fell dumb. Their bodies shuddered and spun.” The list of strange, spasmodic symptoms went on and on. There were no physicians in Salem, but it likely wouldn’t have mattered much — the basic medical kit of the time differed little from that used by the Greeks.

The malady was eventually decided to be supernatural. And it was contagious: The number of accusers and accused grew until the plague had spread to 25 nearby villages and towns; in Andover, one out of every 15 people would be accused of witchcraft.

What was behind the panic? Schiff argues that conditions “favored such an outbreak. The talk around Betty and Abigail was fraught, angry, apocalyptic.”

These were a people so vulnerable to what Cotton Mather called “diseases of astonishment” that they postponed Harvard College’s graduation on account of an inauspicious eclipse. In this community, “[n]ot to believe in witchcraft [was] the greatest of heresies.”

The witch hunts lasted nine months, during which as many as 185 people were imprisoned and brought to Salem’s newly-formed court of oyer and terminer for criminal trial. By the end of 1692 14 women and five men had been executed, all publicly hanged except 81-year-old Giles Corey, who over two long days was slowly crushed to death by planks and stones as spectators urged him to confess his collusion with the devil. He never did.

As the paranoia spread it soon became evident that “it was safer to be afflicted” by witchcraft “than accused,” and naturally the number of accusations escalated. “A wife and daughter denounced their husband and father. Husbands implicated wives . . . siblings each other . . . A woman who traveled to Salem to clear her name wound up shackled before the afternoon was out.” Attempting to clear one’s name was in fact the worst possible strategy: Every single defendant who actually confessed to witchcraft was spared; only those claiming innocence were executed. For it was not the accused’s place to determine innocence or guilt; in this highly structured society, “[j]ustices and ministers alone unriddled witchcraft.”

The fact that many more women than men were accused and convicted fits with the contradictory role women held at the time. Women had no political rights in New England and were regarded as the weaker sex. Yet female religious leaders, such as Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, were considered potential threats to the very foundations of society. Further, women were constantly appearing as the strong, daring, wily heroines of the Indian captivity and escape narratives that became, as Schiff suggests, templates for stories of witchcraft.

The series of show trials and gruesome executions finally wore down the psyches of the public and officials. By late 1692 those in charge, who were some of Massachusetts’s most esteemed public figures with names that still resonate in the state — the ministers Increase and Cotton Mather, Stephen Sewall (a street in Brookline is named for him), William Stoughton (the town of Stoughton is named for him, as is a residence hall at Harvard), and John Hathorn (ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who added a letter to his name to obscure the relationship) among them — began to cover their tracks.

Salem was a community of “[m]aniacal record-keepers,” Schiff writes, but they “made an exception for 1692.” Thomas Putnam, Salem’s official court recorder, rewrote the village record, deleting any events that were, in his words, “grievous to any of us in time past or that may be unprofitable for time to come.” Schiff states with stunned bluntness: “No trace of a single session of the witchcraft court survives.” What we have instead are the personal notes of community members, some of whom heard the stories second hand.

Over the past three centuries, however, historians have resurrected much of the world Putnam tried to erase. Schiff balances an elegant, almost imperial narrative style befitting the scale of the tragedy with a sensitivity to the individual lives that were destroyed. Five-year-old Dorothy Good, for example, who “spent eight and a half months in miniature manacles. Her infant sister died before her eyes. She had watched her mother, against whom she had testified, head defiantly off to the gallows.” Little Dorothy “went insane;” Schiff writes: “she would require care for the rest of her life.”

Horrifying as it was, Schiff never distances herself or the reader from the human experience she has recounted. “We all subscribe to preposterous beliefs,” she reminds us. “[W]e just don’t know yet which ones they are.”

THE WITCHES: Salem, 1692

By Stacy Schiff

Little, Brown, 498 pp., illustrated, $32

Illustration: Papercut Totentanz/ Dance Macabre, Walter Draesner, 1922.

This review was originally published in the Books section of the Boston Globe on Sunday, October 25, 2015.

Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul, by Mark Ribowsky

maxresdefault Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler called him “the single most extraordinary talent I had ever seen.” Impresario Bill Graham felt his concert at the San Francisco Fillmore was “the best gig I ever put on in my entire life.” His performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival made the Rolling Stones’s Brian Jones cry. Janis Joplin was characteristically blunt: “Otis is God.”

One of America’s greatest performers, Otis Redding enjoyed less than a decade of fame before dying in a plane crash in 1967 at age 26. Just days earlier he recorded the song that would become his biggest hit: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” the sixth most-played song in the 20th century.

Redding’s death was tragic, but his life was not. This is the central challenge for biographer Mark Ribowsky in “Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul.” Redding was a gifted, hard working songwriter and singer — he was a pro. At age 15 he won his hometown of Macon, Ga.’s citywide talent show 15 weeks straight. From then on, the force of his talent provided a fairly unimpeded path to stardom.

Compared to the lives of some of his peers, such as Etta James, Wilson Pickett, and Marvin Gaye, Redding’s life was uneventful. He wasn’t a drug addict or alcoholic, nor was he emotionally tortured, although Ribowsky does wring some drama out of his relationship with his father, a man of strict religious beliefs who initially discouraged his son from a life of show business but eventually became his champion. Every few chapters we get a glimpse of Redding’s early idol, fellow Macon native Little Richard, who scandalized the public with his bisexuality, drug use, and freaky charisma, and think: Wow, remind me to pick up his biography next time.

Ribowsky thus makes the wise choice to broaden his scope to the Southern Soul scene itself, particularly the unlikely triumph of Memphis’s small but influential Stax Records (Redding’s label) and the music industry as a whole. Ribowsky is pleasingly candid: “The record game, to be polite, is one of the most venal and soulless entities ever known, and a bane to creatively inclined people easily manipulated by power brokers with a fast line and legal levers to rip them off.” As Ribowsky shows, Stax itself fell victim to the same “insidious but legal backstabbing” when Atlantic Records virtually stole Stax’s world-famous back catalog (including recordings by Redding, Pickett, Isaac Hayes, and many others) and all the royalties associated with it.

But before all that ugliness, the tiny, family-run Stax, with its racially integrated staff and seat-of-the-pants production, managed to create a unique and influential sound that rivaled Motown, gained the admiration of fans around the world, and “converted one of the whitest bastions of the post-Confederate South into the vital core of black music.”

It’s a great story but one that is often interrupted by Ribowsky’s awkward phrasing. A recording studio has “glutinous echoes”; he describes Little Richard as “bold and daring yet conventionally spiritual enough to wear the label derived from a centuries-old religious conceptualization of the immortal essence of the human spirit and its undying connection to a higher power,” whatever that means.

One gets the sense that Ribowsky is turning up the volume a little too high to try and make his point. It’s a shame, because the subject practically speaks for itself. Notwithstanding the soul-baring theatricality of Redding’s performances on songs such as “Try a Little Tenderness,” the power of soul music has always been, paradoxically, its sense of restraint. The greatest soul singers are masters of dynamics, starting out softly with a slow build to the climax. “It wasn’t the size of his voice,” said keyboardist Booker T. Jones of Redding, “we knew lots of people with vocal powers like that. It was the intent with which he sang.” “Dreams to Remember” provides some fascinating historical context, but most of what you need to know about the emotional biography of Otis Redding can be found in the still-vital and moving recordings he left behind.

Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul

By Mark Ribowsky

Liveright, 400 pp., illustrated, $27.95

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on June 13, 2015.

Life in Bettyville


Betty Baker Hodgman

Book Review: Bettyville by George Hodgman (Viking, 2015) 279 pages.

If Roz Chast’s recent book, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, 2014) and George Hodgman’s terrific new memoir Bettyville (Viking, 2015) are to serve as guides—and I think they should—to writing about the often exhausting task of taking care of one’s elderly parents, it’s clear that you need to come armed with three things to make the caretaking and the writing about it work: Humor, patience, and humor.

“She is wearing the jeans she will never take off and a blouse with stains she cannot see,” George Hodgman writes about one site of struggle with his aging mother: the battle to convince her to wear clean clothes. “For many days this pairing has been her choice. I have given up trying to control her clothes. God grant me the serenity to accept the clothes I cannot change.” A veteran of rehab himself, George has no illusions.

Bettyville is the story of a man leaving New York City to return to his childhood home in tiny, tattered Paris, Missouri to help his ailing mother, Betty. It is the story of the love between the two of them; Betty, a beautiful, flinty woman full of opinions (“One could safely say that she considers the absence of bric-a-brac to be a social problem roughly comparable to malnutrition.”) and George, her big, smart, gentle, middle-aged gay son (“I was no Huck Finn,” this son of Missouri writes, “though I thought the hat was interesting.”) Betty knows George is gay. But it’s not a topic of conversation. It never has been.

[Side Note: In a perfect world the casting of the movie version of Bettyville would be easy: George would be played by a younger Oscar Levant; Betty: an older Bette Davis; George’s naughty rescue dog Raj: a spray-painted Asta from The Thin Man movies. And it would be directed by Preston Sturges. Obviously]

“By the time my mother realized that she was smart or saw she had the kind of looks that open doors, she had already closed too many to go back,” Hodgman writes. “‘I just wanted a house with a few nice things,’ she told me once. ‘That was my little dream.’” And that’s where they find themselves, all these years later, in that house, in that little dream. Big George, the father, has long passed on, and now it’s just Betty persevering in a part of the country that is withering in population though plagued with the same challenges facing all parts of America: joblessness, meth labs, depression. Yet it's not a depressing story. "I was over to Wal-Mart  and asked some kid for help, said I was visually impaired," says Evie, one of Betty's friends. "Five minutes later I hear over the loudspeaker, 'Blind woman needs help in drugs.' I mea, what else do they say on the loudspeaker at Wal-Mart? 'We got a bitch in toys?'"

Like Evie, Betty is fully herself, with all her peccadilloes intact, from the “awful” sandals she insists on wearing, to her love of hate-watching Wheel of Fortune. And George is so funny, so self-deprecating and  sweet: "In the course of ten years my existence has gone from Looking for Mr. Goodbar to Driving Miss Daisy... I have been away from New York a long time am tempted to make love to a hanging basket. Recently, the discovery of the Big Wang Chinese restaurant at the Lake of the Ozarks has sparked my fantasy life."

They both have their limits, of course. Betty can be irritable and snappish. But as George writes, “Betty’s crankiness is an act, I think, a way to conceal her embarrassment at having to ask anything of anyone. When I do something for her, she looks away. Accustomed to fending for herself, she hates all this.” And George isn’t quite the superhero he wants to be. “I would fix the mailbox, but am not handy,” he admits. “Nor do I assemble. A trip to Ikea is enough to unhinge me. I would prefer a spinal tap to putting together a coffee table.”

The time away from New York City, where George has worked as an editor at Vanity Fair and Henry Holt, allows him the chance to reflect on his own life and relationships. George is single, a fact that sometimes haunts him, despite his preference for privacy. As he puts it, “I have been called emotionally unavailable. I prefer to think of myself as merely temporarily out of stock.”

The ballad of George and Betty is a lovely one. It’s the story of a mother who needs her son, and a son who needs his mother, and the beautiful way they come together. “On Betty’s journey,” George writes, “I have learned something I had not known: I am very strong, strong enough to stay, strong enough to go when the time comes. I am staying not to cling on, but because sometime, at least once, everyone should see someone through. All the way home.”


Book Review: Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James McGrath Morris

Ethel Lois Payne

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on Sunday, February 15, 2015.

‘Somehow, I felt I was woven into the drama that was going on,” said Ethel Lois Payne of her experience as a reporter covering the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott for the Chicago Defender newspaper. “This was something taking place for me and for all the people that I knew . . . It was like a historic battle being drawn out on a field, but you were part of it.”

During her 30-year career Payne seemed to be present for every pivotal moment of the struggle for black civil rights. And like the African-American Defender itself, she didn’t pretend to be objective. As Payne said, “We are soul folks and I am writing for soul brothers’ consumption.”

James McGrath Morris has written two other biographies about journalists, “Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power’’ (HarperCollins, 2010), about newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer, and “The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism,’’ (Fordham University, 2003), about newspaper editor Charles E. Chapin. In “Eye on the Struggle’’ he focuses on a less well-known yet equally important aspect of American journalism history: the black press.

As Morris shows, the Chicago Defender and other black newspapers were often the only news outlets that regularly reported on the injustices facing the African-American community, from the early days of the civil-rights protests in the South to the first reports on the murder of teenager Emmett Till. And Ethel Payne was often first on the scene.

Payne was born in Chicago in 1911. Morris’s portrait of the Midwestern metropolis challenges the widespread belief that segregation was confined to the American South. Strict racial divides prevailed in the city, including the schools Payne attended. “When it comes to morality, I say colored children are unmoral,” said one assistant principal of a predominantly white Chicago high school. “Not that we segregate them: the white keeps away from the colored.”

Payne was a bookish girl whose hero was “Little Women’s’’ Jo March, but because of a struggle to get a good education and the economic crisis of the Great Depression, her dreams of becoming a writer were put off for years. Payne was 40 years old when, in 1951, she finally published her first story at the Chicago Defender.

She may have started late, but “[h]er ambition, stoked by years of closed doors, gave her the energy to match younger reporters.” Payne took her readers into the action of the civil-rights movement, her folksy, down-to-earth personality and writing style putting her subjects and readers at ease. She was one of the first reporters to understand that the black church was the source for new leadership in the fight for civil rights. “ ‘A new type of leader is emerging in the South,’ ” Payne wrote in one of the earliest newspaper profiles of King. “ ‘He is neither an NAACP worker, nor a CIO political action field director . . . [he] carries a Bible in his hand.”

Payne’s personal relationships with leaders of the civil rights movement, as well as her political connections in Washington, earned her the title of “First Lady of the Black Press,” and her career as a journalist and, later, as a union organizer and political activist took her overseas for meetings with world leaders including Nelson Mandela, whose antiapartheid cause she had long supported.

“Eye on the Struggle’’ is a fast-paced tour through the highlights of 20th-century African-American history, with Payne as witness. But we hear very few details of her personal life. One gets the impression that Payne was highly protective of her intimate relationships — assuming there were some. Yet perhaps that’s fitting for a woman whose profession was her identity.

“For black journalists, particularly me,” she once said, “[w]e were absolutely unable to make the distinction between what is ‘objective journalism.’ So I adopted a code of trying to be fair, but I could not divorce myself from the heart of the problem, because I was part of the problem.” As Morris’s exhaustive and heartfelt biography reveals, Payne was also a large part of the solution.

There's Something I Want You to Do: stories by Charles Baxter


Book Review: There's Something I Want You to Do, by Charles Baxter. (Pantheon, 240 pages) This review was originally published in the Boston Globe on February 6, 2015. 

There is a direct link between the fable and the fabulous, and the fiction of the beloved Charles Baxter has explored it for more than four decades, in novels such as the National Book Award-nominated “The Feast of Love” (2000), a reimagining of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ set in a 20th-century college town, and “Saul and Patsy” (2003), the intimate story of a marriage threatened by obsession.

Baxter was born and raised in Minneapolis-St. Paul. He now teaches at the University of Minnesota. His new story collection, “There’s Something I Want You to Do,” is mostly set in the Twin Cities, and we witness, from different angles, the same scenarios again and again, with one story’s protagonist reappearing as a minor actor in someone else’s tale later on. Baxter edited “Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories” (2012) for the Library of America, and Anderson’s influence is obvious here; “There’s Something I Want You to Do” is in many ways Baxter’s “Winesburg, Ohio,’’ an intimate look at the emotional lives of everyday folks sharing the same geography.

It’s Baxter’s presence as the gentle overseer of this fictional Minneapolis that gives “There’s Something I Want You to Do” an old-fashioned feeling not too different from the relationship Garrison Keillor has to his own Minnesota community of Lake Wobegon, or that of the Stage Manager to the residents of Grover’s Corners in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” In the story “Avarice,” an aging widow, visits her husband’s grave, “here under the balding blue sky with its wisps of white hair.” While the image suggests God looking down on this pious woman, the presence of Baxter himself, the Great Narrator, hovers over, too.

It is Baxter, after all, who has created these characters and their lives and assigned them to stories labeled like a book of fables, each one named either for a virtue (Bravery, Loyalty, Chastity, Charity, and Forbearance) or a vice (Lust, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, Vanity). In their weaker moments they can read as morality tales, preachy and unreal. Yet at their best, Baxter’s humanity and imagination reveal the magical aspects of everyday life, as in “Chastity,” when Benny Takemitsu recalls meeting his wife as she stood on the edge of a bridge, about to jump, and realizes that it was her love of pranks and jokes that kept her alive: “[W]hat he mistook for a charade and a pastime, a stunt, a form of harmless amateur wickedness, was for her a tether that tied her to the earth.” That ghostly connection lingers in the imagination — Benny’s and ours.

Baxter seems most engaged with his characters when writing in first person, as in “Loyalty,” in which a mechanic named Wes describes his extended family. “She has tried to keep it a secret from me” Wes says of his mother, the aforementioned Dolores, “but I know my mother was and is interested in extraterrestrials (although she is a registered Republican).” That parenthetical reveals a lot about Wes, a deeply philosophical man who would never describe himself that way.

When Wes looks at his depressed ex-wife who has returned to his doorstep and realizes “I have to let her remain here if she wants to. She’s wreckage. It’s as simple as that. We have these obligations to our human ruins,” it’s clear Baxter has the same feeling of duty to his characters. A flash of Flannery O’Connor’s percipient gaze sometimes falls across these stories of sadness and loss, but in Baxter’s rendering, the mistakes and foolishness of the human race are registered with compassion rather than O’Connor’s chilly, if brilliant, detachment.

Although Baxter never steps in to mingle with his characters like the Stage Manager in “Our Town,’’ he’s always there on the sidelines cheering them on. In the story “Charity,” another first-person narrative, Harry tends to the illness of his addicted boyfriend. “Do you think anything is watching us?” the boyfriend asks. “No,” Harry says. “Nothing is ever watching us, Matty. We’re all unwatched.” But you have to wonder if Harry — or Baxter — really believes that’s true.