Historical fictions about the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693 have often been reduced to political or moral allegory, stand-ins for McCarthyism, send-ups of Puritanism, or cautionary tales of pietism gone wrong. The judges never come off well. In Crane Pond, Richard Francis creates a nuanced, compassionate and fascinating portrait of Samuel Sewall, the unwilling hanging judge. He’s a devout, faithful husband with unholy fantasies; a loving, bungling father; leader of his beloved community who oversees its unraveling; a rigorous, thoughtful judge whose conclusions seem (to us) absurd.
Crane Pond recounts the 15 months of witch trials and Sewall’s next four tormented, guilt-ridden years of retribution against a richly detailed, highly sensory re-creation of the times. The writing is elegant, with grace notes of sly humor, using accessible yet evocative phrasings. But Francis does more: taking us beyond the complacency with which we often view this iconic moment in American history. We tell ourselves we’re way more rational today. “Oh really?” Francis suggests, with a riveting account of how Puritan theology and worldview bullied educated, earnest men like Sewall into hanging twenty people on the “evidence” of a few screaming girls. Our own worldview may right now be putting us in positions the future may find absurd. For this reason alone, Crane Pond is well worth the read.
However, it’s not a fast read. There are many characters and repeated first names. Keep the supplied list of principal characters handy. Subtle legal and theological arguments must be traced to explain a convoluted system in which if God exists, so must Satan, and hence witches exist, and only a witch would deny being one. But persevere: Crane Pond deserves and rewards attention. This portrait of Samuel Sewall, enemy of Satan, forces sympathy for a man often seen as a devil.