Us -v.- Them: Salem, 1692 edition…

I’m writing this during the first Presidential Debates, which I am NOT watching.  I dislike debates.  In fact, I dislike all arguing and conflict.  And in the case of this election and these debates, I’m also not watching because I’m saddened and amazed that anybody can listen to Donald Trump and not be terrified about the future of our country if he were to actually win.

What does this have to do with the subject of my post, the book The Witches:  Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff (Little, Brown & Co., 2015)?  Just this:  we Americans have succumbed to our baser instincts before, and I worry it’s distinctly possible we’ll do so again.

The Witches: Salem, 1692

The Salem Witch Trials would seem to be a historical event that has been studied ad nauseam.  But in the talented hands of Stacy Schiff, they take on a new vibrancy, malevolence, and relevance.  She sets aside theories about food poisoning, taxes, or teenage hysteria and instead lets the extant (though surprisingly sparse) documents speak for themselves.  In the process, the reader is inexorably drawn into a dark, rigid, superstitious, and confined world where people truly believed it was possible for an old woman standing in shackles right in front of judges to simultaneously be biting or pricking with pins girls in the same room.  That we can view the accusations as ridiculous from our three hundred year remove makes them no less deadly at the time.  The fact is that innocent women (and a few men) went to their deaths because of these beliefs.

Schiff has a deft, wry style of writing that makes reading this book every bit as compelling as the best crime fiction.  What struck me was that as she pieces together the puzzle of who, what, when, and where, the elusive why lurks around the edges, showing itself in inheritance disputes, economic jealousies, and pigs who ravage a neighbor’s garden.  My mother’s family has just descended into a nasty argument over a parcel of relatively low-worth farmland in Nebraska.  Before a lawsuit was threatened, I had difficulty understanding how families could turn against each other.  Now I have a better idea.  Which made reading the book that much more poignant.

I can say that I am something of an expert on witch beliefs, and not because (as some former students might believe)  I taught for over thirty years.  My MH thesis studied the way witches were depicted in Spanish literature and art, from Fernando de Rojas and Cervantes to Goya.  Schiff does a good job in the book of tracing how European ideas translated to New England.  What was clear in my research, what shows up repeatedly in Salem, and what I think we are seeing in our current election, is a strong dose of misogyny.  Women are not to be trusted, and women who move outside acceptable social bounds are especially suspect.

The Salem Witch Trials pitted town against town, neighbor against neighbor, even husbands against wives and children against parents.  It was a case of Us v. Them taken to lethal extremes.  Those who dared to speak out against the excesses were very likely to find themselves the next to be accused.  What worries me about our country right now is that you could substitute Muslims, African-Americans, or Mexican immigrants for witches and hear the same angry, fearful rhetoric.  Arthur Miller used the Salem court papers to write The Crucible as a response to the hysteria of the McCarthy Communist “witch hunts”.  Schiff assures us that:

It turns out to be eminently useful to have a disgrace in your past; Salem endures not only as a metaphor but as a vaccine and a taunt.  It glares at us when fear paralyzes reason, when we overreact or overcorrect, when we hunt down or deliver up the alien or seditious.

I hope we reflect and remember before we go down the path of a Trump presidency.  I really do.




Ruminating on the “woulda/coulda/shoulda” life…

After an exciting spring and early summer, I seem to find myself out of sorts lately.  I’m not sure if it’s because of the crispness in the air and the falling leaves, the recent passing of my father-in-law, or the impending birthday of a child I’m lucky to see once a year (and am guaranteed not to see on their birthday).  Which seems kind of pathetic, because really, these are all relatively small issues in the grander scheme of war and illness and loss.  But there you have it.

Alternative view 1 of Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life

As tends to happen with me, my reading either reflects, or is informed by, where I’m at elsewhere in my life.  So my last books have had me thinking a lot about the life I might have led if I had made different decisions at key junctures, or if I had summoned just a bit more courage or self-confidence.  Missing Out:  In Praise of the Unlived Life, by Adam Phillips (Picador, 2013) promised to be, according to Amazon, “A TRANSFORMATIVE BOOK ABOUT THE LIVES WE WISH WE HAD AND WHAT THEY CAN TEACH US ABOUT WHO WE ARE”.  Hmmm.  I didn’t find it even remotely “transformative”  Heavy on Freudian psychology and its attendant jargon and preoccupations with the mother/child relationship, it tended toward being more pedantic than helpful.  As near as I could decipher, the key point seemed to be that by THINKING about other lives, we in fact derive more satisfaction than by actually living them.  Which does make sense.  I’ve long known, for example, that I get almost as much enjoyment from planning for and fantasizing about upcoming travels as I do from the actual experiences.  The chapter titles pretty much tell you what you need to know about what you’ll get from this book:  “On Frustration”; “On Not Getting It”; “On Getting Away With It”; “On Getting Out of It”; “On Satisfaction”.  None of which really clarified anything common sense and life experience hadn’t already taught me.

Another book I had been anticipating reading for several months (the amount of time I was on the wait list for it at the library) was The Road to Little Dribbling:  Adventures of an American in Britain, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 2016).  I love to read any type of travel narrative, which then of course feeds into my constant “what would my life be like THERE…” daydreams.  And Bryson is one of my favorite authors of that genre.  He has a witty style that I always enjoy, and an honesty bordering on cynicism that perhaps reflects my own.  I did enjoy this book immensely, though at the end I found myself wondering if I come across as being as grouchy, even curmudgeonly, as Bryson.  As the author explores what he dubs “The Bryson Line” from Bognor Regis in southern England to Cape Wrath in northern Scotland, the reader experiences lovely coastal walks, quaint villages, fascinating museums, and mysterious standing stones.  But they are also subjected to random rants about everything from urban sprawl to incorrect grammar to litter to incompetent McDonald’s cashiers.  There seems to be an idiot lurking around every corner, just waiting to ruin Bryson’s day or send him into apoplectic diatribes.  Sometimes it is amusing, like when he quips “I like the Scots, especially the ones who don’t look at me like they might in a minute have to shove my head through a wall” (I have a Scottish ex-brother-in-law), or “Returning to my book, I learned that Sarah Palin thought Africa was a country.  It was a wonderful evening.”  But  sometimes they’re just mean, and I occasionally  found myself feeling sorry for someone who seems so very annoyed so very much of the time.

My sister lived in England and Scotland for several years, so I have been to some of the spots mentioned by Bryson.  I also know from her that there are plusses and minuses to living there.  A couple of weeks ago, I read a fascinating article online entitled “Psychology debunks the idea that we’d be happier if we lived somewhere else.”  It makes the valid point that sooner or later, the allure and newness wears off, and that what makes us truly happy is the “social capital” that we build in a place we have been for a while.  Last weekend, my husband and I decided to try to escape the seemingly endless Colorado crowds by driving to Fort Laramie National Historic Site, in Wyoming.  I had been there before, but never really noticed how beautiful the area is.  I also was struck by what we had come for:  the absence of people and crowds.  “Maybe we should move here”, I thought.  Then I went into the only grocery store nearby and was frustrated by the bad country music blaring overhead and by the absence of much choice in the picnicking department, and realized that maybe I wouldn’t be as happy there as I like to imagine.  They did just open a White Fence Farm takeout location right by my house, after all.