This book is so boring it took me forever to get through it. It’s been on my shelf since I started this blog a year and a half ago and I keep putting it off because I remember it being so dreadfully boring as a kid! I’m becoming more and more convinced that the only reason Ann Rinaldi sold so many books was that there were no other “serious” historical fiction books aimed at this age bracket until Dear America came along, and possibly because these books were required by law to be in the library of every American classroom, just waiting to be assigned to an unwitting kid.
A Break With Charity, Ann Rinaldi, 1992.
If you’re keeping track, this is “the one about the Salem witch trials.” This isn’t going to be a super in-depth recap, because this is 284 pages of dense, dense, dense story. It’s such a shame, because the story of the witch trials itself is such an interesting one, but it’s just been done so much better and in so much more INTERESTING ways (like Lisa Fraustino’s Dear America book)! This reads like a vaguely fictionalized historical book, which it kind of is—the protagonist is a real person, 99% of the characters are real people, the events and timing are all real. But oh god. This is a trial all by itself.
Susanna English, the narrator, is the teenage daughter of a wealthy merchant in Salem, who feels largely left out from the general social run of things. She notices that a group of girls about her age have been gathering at the home of the parson with his slave, Tituba, who is teaching them fortune-telling and “little sorceries.” Because she’s left out of this, she’s jealously (and creepily) hiding in the woods when Tituba’s husband, John Indian, notices and invites her in. Tituba tells Susanna that she’s not doing anything evil, she’s just bringing some love and excitement into their lives because they’re frustrated—caught between girlhood and adulthood and not allowed to do much of anything.
Throughout that winter, Susanna’s family waits to hear news of her elder brother; she and her older sister Mary keep time with their sort-of boyfriends; they give alms to the poor in the village; and Susanna keeps occasionally visiting with Tituba to see if she’ll tell her anything about her brother William. In January they hear that one of the girls in the circle has been having “hysterical fits,” and it spreads to the others. At first there’s a general perception that the girls are being spoiled and no wonder they’re acting out when they get treated so well afterwards. Susanna goes to see Ann Putnam and bring her some food, and Ann blusters that she knows exactly what she’s doing and that the ministers are asking them to name the witches and pick them out of the town.
You know, part of the reason this book is so flaming boring is because there’s two possible ways of reading it. If you know the basics of the Salem witch trials (group of girls playing with fortune-telling began acting out, things spun out of control, began accusing people of being witches, the ministers ran with it, things went way off the rails, people died, it all eventually fizzled out after), then it’s not an interesting retelling of it at all because the human interest portion doesn’t jump out and seem interesting enough to catch attention. If you know nothing about the story, it’s a semi-interesting retelling with all these random side plots about Susanna’s life and her family, but it never really rises to the level of “gripping.” Which is a shame, because it IS a gripping story! Just not the way it’s told.
Anyway, as I get sidetracked, we’re back in Susanna’s house where her father is telling her that all this nonsense is just a big pain and not to worry, because it’s all a hassle over nothing. But the girls have different ideas and begin naming names—Tituba to start with. One of the girls names Rebecca Nurse, who is an elderly woman of extremely good reputation, and Susanna’s mother is not going to stand for this nonsense. During Meeting that week, Susanna’s mother goes to sit with the sister of Rebecca Nurse, and they both leave when the reverend starts preaching against witchcraft, and declares she’s never going back to that sham of a meeting. They name more and more witches, and by April Susanna’s mother is one of the accused.
Susanna goes back to Ann Putnam and says she’s demented, and Ann is all “Eh, it had to happen, there’s devils everywhere in this town!” But because Susanna’s mother is wealthy, instead of being thrown in jail she’s staying at an inn. Her father is concerned that his business will go under, so he’s out of town trying to ensure they won’t have all their assets seized and arranging for her mother to be removed to Boston (and to go there himself, if he has to). Susanna and her sister Mary opt to stay in Salem with Joseph and Elizabeth Putnam, the uncle and aunt of Ann, and then they get the news that they’re going to arrest their father as well and he flees to Boston.
Joseph Putnam is attempting to lead a group against all the nonsense of the witch trials, but things are going steadily downhill. Susanna’s mother is chained with the others, and her father returns from Boston to turn himself in to exchange himself for her comfort. Susanna’s sister will go to Boston and Susanna stays there with the Putnams. They’re just in time because in June they begin hanging people. Things continue to spiral out of hand, the girls are more and more outrageously hysterical and begin going to nearby towns to name witches there (which, suspiciously, they can’t do, because they don’t know anyone there!).
Susanna eventually confesses to Joseph that she knew what was going on from the beginning and that she went to see Tituba a couple of times as well, and that Ann Putnam admitted to her that she started doing it for attention and for fun and because they got everything they wanted, and that she would accuse Susanna’s mother if Susanna said anything. Joseph is angry with her for hiding all of this from them, and asks her to help more going forward. When Susanna goes out with her sort-of boyfriend, their carriage wheel breaks, making them late and making Susanna miss meeting her family—who are going to New York to escape the trials.
Susanna’s boyfriend Johnathan goes from being a believer to thinking the girls are as full of it as anyone, but Susanna has gone from thinking they’re dangerous crazies to thinking maybe they have something, given how everyone is behaving—so Johnathan takes Susanna to meet with one of the accused witches. Susanna sees that this is insanity, obviously, and then later Joseph Putnam asks her to give evidence to the reverend of everything she’s seen and heard since the beginning. The reverend writes a letter to the magistrates discussing what’s gone wrong in Salem, and while later in August more people are killed, by the end of the summer Susanna is asked to give more evidence.
The governor forbids any more imprisonment, and Susanna’s brother comes home from Barbados—just in time for Susanna to explain all of the Salem and proceedings and why their entire family has been forced to decamp to New York.
Rating: C-/D+. I know this is a lackluster review, but honestly: it’s a pretty lackluster book. It’s not interesting! It’s just not as engaging as it should be for an interesting period in history, and I have to say that none of it grabbed me at all. While including Susanna’s story should be a way of injecting some personal interest into a dry story, it ends up being a distraction from the main point and a frustrating counterpoint. There’s plenty of interesting narratives about the Salem Witch Trials out there—go find one, because this isn’t it.