Saturday, January 8, 2011

Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill

Wicked Girls: A novel of the Salem Witch Trials is a unique book. It is a fictionalized account of the Salem Witch trials of 1692 told in free verse. Author Sephanie Hemphill undertook considereable research in preparation for writing Wicked Girls. Her story of the Salem witch trials is told from the perspective of 3 real girls who were involved in what happened in Salem; Ann Putnam Jr (aged 12 years), Mercy Lewis (aged 17 years) and Margaret Walcott (aged 17 years).

Research into the Salem witch trials has suggested many theories as to how a situation developed in which hundreds of persons, many unknown to the "afflicted" girls, were accused of witchcraft and 19 people were hanged. Hemphill reviews some of these theories in an Author's Note at the back of her book. We likely will never know for certain what precipitated the witch "affliction". But among the theories is the following: that a group of girls began experimenting with minor forms of witchcraft (telling fortunes). Eventually, what started innocently enough developed into an opportunity for attention, social empowerment and manipulation that involved not just individuals but entire families. It is this aspect that Wicked Girls explores in its fictional retelling of the Salem witch trials.

For example, Mercy Lewis, whose own parent's murders she witnessed and who lived as a servant in the household of Thomas and Ann Putnam (Sr), sees her status altered to a member of the family no longer required to do chores.

Overall the book was well-written, if a little lengthy at 389 pages. And this length might be problematic for teens. I also found that although the verse conveys the horror of the trials and hangings, the drama and suspense was largely lacking due to the sparce descriptions sometimes inherent in writing in verse. Nevertheless, the story is reasonably well told and I was amazed at how these girls could continue to name people whom they did not know as witches and yet were believed. I was amazed that someone as young as 12 could hold the power to convince a court to hang someone, even when there were people in the community who expressed doubts about the girls behaviour and sanity.

Wicked Girls is an interesting addition to the canon of free-verse YA literature. Its unusual topic is well presented and invites readers to question the effects of peer pressure, social status and empowerment and group dynamics within a specific community.

I highly recommend Wicked Girls especially for those looking to write about power and identity.
For those looking to study the Salem Witch trials further consider the Documentary Archives presented by the University of Virginia.

Book Details:

Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill
Balzer + Bray   2010

No comments: