When I was asked to review this novel about the Salem witch trials, I readily agreed because it is a period of history that has always fascinated me. However, I have to admit that I did wonder whether any author could possibly add anything new to this well known and often told story. I was delighted to discover that Richard Francis has done just that in this wonderful novel. He has done so by focusing on Samuel Sewell, a respected Boston merchant who was appointed to serve as one of the judges at the trials and who was, eventually, the only one to admit that there had been a mistake, a terrible miscarriage of justice. Increasingly troubled by his conscience, four years after the trials he publicly repented his involvement and then continued to seek atonement.
The story starts in 1690, with the reader being introduced to Samuel as he makes his way to breakfast on a bitterly cold, snowy day in January. With a bedcover wrapped over his “ample nightshirt”, his wife Hannah commenting that he has “brought the bed” with him, his four children sitting at the table, and with a fire burning in the grate of a draughty room, he announces to his gathered family, “First prayer, then pie.” This level of intimacy sets the tone for why this is such a remarkably different telling of a familiar story – and it also gives the reader a couple of clues to indicate that Samuel is rather partial to his food!
Through Samuel’s eyes the reader is drawn into the social, political and religious influences of life in Massachusetts. He is a loving family man, a committed Puritan who not only wants to think well of himself and to live a moral life, but also to be thought well of by his family and fellow citizens. Consequently, he constantly wrestles with his conscience, his faith and the value of his own judgements. It seems that everything that goes wrong, on a personal as well as on a broader social and political level, he can attribute to sinful thoughts or behaviour. As the novel opens, he is involved in the trial of seven men who, after much debate between the judges, are eventually found guilty of piracy and sentenced to be hanged. Before the executions are due to take place pressure is brought to bear on him, from people with vested interests, to agree to review these sentences. After some initial resistance, and against his better judgement, he finds himself agreeing, incrementally, to reprieve all seven men. However, he ends up believing that he has been weak to go against his better judgement, and that he has compromised his principles. Subsequently, when he learns of the developing events in Salem, he even starts to wonder whether his compromise has contributed to the wickedness being perpetrated. It is with these turbulent feelings that he approaches his role of judge when the witchcraft trials begin.
I grew very fond of Samuel and his family as the story progressed. I felt myself becoming very involved with his inner struggles to be truthful, to maintain his integrity, to be a good man and to interpret the scriptures wisely in order to decide what was just or unjust. His love for his wife and his children shone through the narrative and it was clear that, whatever his night-time, lustful fantasies, he was a faithful husband. However, because he knows that he is subject to temptation, he wonders whether the stillbirths, or subsequent deaths, of some of his children are God’s way of punishing him for his weaknesses. The mundane little asides (often about food!) amidst all his philosophical musings, in addition to often being very amusing, were part of what really brought him to life and made him such a vivid, three-dimensional character.
The details of the background to the trials are well known but, by giving Samuel Sewell such an authentic voice, Richard Francis has offered a powerful new perspective on this shameful miscarriage of justice. I had never imagined that I could feel any more shocked by the escalation of public hysteria that led to the horrors which ensued but, through this intimate portrait of a compassionate, flawed and well-meaning man, who was constantly struggling with his conscience, I found myself feeling even more angry about all the religious and political conditions that enabled such horrors to be perpetrated. The fact that bigotry, hysteria and suspicion remain in today’s world means that there can never be any room for complacency, for a belief that nothing like this could ever happen again. The forms it takes may be different but there are clear examples that it can, and it does. I also found it interesting to note that at the time of the trials concern was expressed that the executive might interfere with the deliberations of the judiciary – a timely reminder that history can, and does, repeat itself!
Throughout the narrative, the author evoked a powerful sense of time and place and his elegant, literate prose created wonderfully vivid imagery of life in late seventeenth century Boston, as well as within the Sewell household. This thread of intimacy, which ran throughout the story and made every single character come to life, made me feel that I didn’t want to let them go when the story ended; I know that they will remain vivid in my memory for a long time to come. The most memorable books for me are those that not only fully engage my interest and imagination, but also teach me something new – Crane Pond did both. Amongst other things, I discovered the true horror behind the meaning of the phrase “the full weight of the law” – never again will I be able to use it in a casual way.
I cannot recommend this wonderful novel highly enough. The author’s comprehensive research into this period of history, and his fascination with Sewell, informs all his narrative and yet I never felt that it overwhelmed the sensitive story-telling. It is a real reflection of his thoughtful, measured writing that he was able to imbue the story with moments of wonderful humour, without detracting from the horrors being perpetrated. He treated all his characters with huge empathy and, in doing so, encourages his readers to do likewise. I certainly found myself reflecting on the influences on Samuel and the dilemmas he faced, making it possible for me to understand more fully how an essentially decent, if flawed, man found himself making the decisions he did. Such was the quality of the spare, elegant writing that at times I felt so totally immersed in the developing tragedy that there were moments when I even found myself expecting justice to prevail!
As I write this review, I am finding myself tempted to go into great detail about the many themes which emerge, making it an excellent choice for reading groups; however, if I did so I would end up writing an extended essay! So, I just have to hope that, if you enjoy well-researched and well-written historical fiction, what I have written will encourage you to rush out and buy a copy of this exceptional book. It is certainly one I plan to re-read and I think it deserves to be showered with literary awards!
Linda Hepworth 5/5