Monday, August 17, 2015

Another Pulitzer for Stacy Schiff?

Blogger is playing games again...this time with some weird highlighting.  Sorry.  I will try to coax a change, but....there are simply days when Blogger and I do not get along.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Cleopatra, the #1 national bestseller, unpacks the mystery of the Salem Witch Trials.

It began in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister's daughter began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, but not before 19 men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death. 

The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, parents and children each other. Aside from suffrage, the Salem Witch Trials represent the only moment when women played the central role in American history. In curious ways, the trials would shape the future republic.

Every year as I prepared to again teach The Crucible to groups of high school students eager to read what they though would be a Halloween type story, I  did background research to deepen our classroom discussions. While Arthur Miller's play is actually a thinly veiled commentary on the McCarthy hearings, I tried to balance info on that event with the stuff that kept the kids coming back for more.  We covered a lot of history during that unit, but not nearly as much or with the intensity of Stacy Schiff's new book.  At first I figured I would spend at leasettwo blog posts on this book, but even that would not be sufficient.  You just have to read this one for yourself.

Schiff's exhaustive research and skilled retelling of the events in Salem over a period of sasingle year are alarming and puzzling at the very least.  She doesn't limit her work to the colonies, however, instead weaving in historical references to similar occurrences throughout Europe.  At times, the absurdity of it all gives the Puritans  the appearance of being, as Schiff implies, on low levels of some mind altering substances.  But, she puts the events into perspective by rigorously describing the conditions in which they lived and the belief system under which they functioned.

As I read I bend corners for you - only in proof copies! - pages that have something I want to share.  Far too many this time.  Let me give you one example.  I figured that if these people accepted certain medical practices as logical and beneficial then yes, I see that they could also explain the unexplainable via a belief  witchcraft.

A basic medical kit...consisted of beetle's blood, fox lung and dried dolphin heart.  ....snails figured in many remedies. ...The fat of a roasted hedgehog dripped into the ear constituted an excellent cure for deafness...for epilepsy of wolf skin girdle worked wonders as did ashes of black cow dung or frog liver powder administered five time daily.  A Salem physician treated hysteric with a brew of breast milk and the blood from an amputated tomcat's ear.

 Yes, a belief in witches in certainly plausible.  

I don't want to give the impression that this book is simply filled with stories, facts and suppositions about oddball beliefs, or midnight visitations by neighborhood women who took to flying into bedchambers upon magical stick.  Frighteningly, portions of this book make tons of sense given our current climate of religious provocation, paranoia, and transparency of our public and private lives.  

This book hits the stands on October 27 - not sure if I like the blatant connection to Halloween.  If you read an marveled at Schiff's Cleopatra - well - you will want to read this book as well.

The piano rolled over safely thanks to the strong arm strength of some HAR peeps, as well as my home and store neighbors.  It sure is a nice sounding instrument.   Thanks to my store neighbor, Shelly, for the more than generous gift.

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