Ann Rinaldi,
A Break with Charity
(Gulliver, 1992)

Read the history books. Visit the town and the sites. Pay your respects at the memorial garden for the victims, whose gravesites are unmarked and undocumented.

It's still hard to imagine how it felt to live in Salem, Mass., in 1692, at the height of the witch trials, when 19 people were hanged, an elderly man was crushed to death and many more were imprisoned and impoverished, all at the word of a small group of hysterical girls who saw -- or, perhaps more accurately, claimed to see -- the devil's hand at work around every corner.

Short of a time machine, the best way to really feel the tension, fear and distrust that dominated life in that small Puritan village is to read A Break with Charity, a historical novel by Ann Rinaldi.

The novel focuses on Susanna English, a girl who lived in Salem at the time and was in many ways intimately involved with the trials. Her parents were both accused of witchcraft, although they fled to Boston, then New York to escape a no-win trial -- in Salem in those days, denying you were a witch meant execution, confession meant survival but the loss of all property. Ironically, Susanna would later marry Johnathon Hathorne, whose father, John Hathorne, was a magistrate at the trials and, unlike his peers, never repented his actions during the hysteria. (Susanna's great-grandson, author Nathaniel Hawthorne, changed the spelling of his name to disassociate himself from his infamous ancestor.)

Little is known about the real Susanna, but Rinaldi paints a dramatic picture that fills in many gaps in the Salem story. (Rinaldi admits in an afterword that she did alter some details of the historical record to suit her story. For instance, Susanna accompanied her parents when they moved to New York, but Rinaldi contrived a reason for her to stay in Salem.)

In the novel, Susanna knew the girls involved in the accusations but was not a part of their immediate circle; she knew their accusations were attention-getting falsehoods, but feared to speak out because she knew her own family was at risk if she did. However, she is intimately involved in the actions and confidences of Joseph and Elizabeth Putnam, who worked to break the cycle of accusation and execution and restore sanity to the town.

If you know your history, you know how it all turns out. But Rinaldi successfully places her readers at the heart of the story, moving Susanna through a framework of well-researched facts and well-developed characters to give life and breath to the narrative. I cannot imagine reading this book without feeling a sense of dread the people then must have experienced, the constant terror that they or their families might soon be touched by the madness.

Historians will probably never know the complete truth of the Salem hysteria, but Rinaldi has captured its essence.

review by
Tom Knapp

2 August 2008

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