October 10, 2013


Six Women of Salem: The Untold Story of the Accused and Their Accusers in the Salem Witch Trials. By Marilynne K. Roach. Da Capo. $18.99.

Young Mr. Roosevelt: FDR’s Introduction to War, Politics, and Life. By Stanley Weintraub. Da Capo. $25.99.

     Now more than ever, the United States seems determined to lurch forward with little regard for history – except for certain very specific elements of history that specific groups have a vested interest in specifically memorializing. In general, the country has long been more forward-looking than past-oriented – a state of affairs that is both a strength and a weakness. The result is that questions of what we can learn from specific studies of history are inevitable when new books examining particular people or periods are written. What Six Women of Salem has to teach us is that issues of class and race, of gender, of religion, of community, of obedience and subservience, were as crucial and complex in 1692 and 1693 as they are today, however different the settings and the people. In fact, it is by showing some of those involved in the Salem Witch Trials as people rather than types that Marilynne K. Roach is most effective. She chooses to profile six of the 255 people involved in the colony’s extended trauma, picking the six from among those who were executed, died in prison, accused others, were themselves accused, or passed judgment. Sharp-tongued widow Bridget Bishop, educated Mary English, elderly Rebecca Nurse, anxiety-ridden Ann Putnam, the slave Tituba and the hired girl Mary Warren are all portrayed with care and sensitivity – and in somewhat more detail than even Roach’s meticulous research can justify. For example, at one point, Mary Warren faces her master’s anger, and Roach writes, “Mary nods, unable to speak. She has often wondered what being this close to her master would be like, but this was not the sort of touch she had daydreamed about.” These bits of novelistic, almost lurid excess actually make sense in a story that is largely about mass hysteria and the effects of sexual repression. But they fit somewhat uneasily with Roach’s determination to include as many facts and as much accurate, primary-research based dialogue in the book as possible. Just before the passage about Mary’s imagined daydreams, for example, Roach offers this: “As [Mary] later described it, a shape, possibly Goody Corey’s, drifted about the room, and as it passed her, Mary snatched at it and pulled it toward herself. Yet when she did, she found that the specter on her lap now had the appearance of her master, John Procter. Procter himself stood elsewhere in the room, observing this suggestive mime. ‘[I]tt is noe body but I,’ he said, ‘itt is my shadow that you see.’ Mary tried to explain what she had seen, but Procter was disgusted. ‘I see there is noe heed to any of your Talkings, for you are all possest With the Devill for itt is nothing butt my shape.’”

     Readers need to be as comfortable dipping into the old-fashioned spellings and expressions as they are with Roach’s imagined or re-created thoughts of the characters to get the full effect of Six Women of Salem. Yet the effort is by and large worthwhile, because amid all the recitations of names and documents and accusations and complaints there emerges here a greater sense of the underlying humanity of the people involved in the Salem Witch Trials than other books about the subject have provided. It is very hard today to understand the mindset and circumstances in which the trials took place, but Roach so successfully humanizes her chosen six women that some of the sense of being real-world people rubs off on those around them as well – even on those who accused the supposed witches, tried them and executed them. The book is not particularly easy reading, being filled with long sentences that list name after name: “The documents in her [Susannah Martin’s] case include statements from the afflicted (written out for them by Thomas Putnam), including Annie Putnam, Mercy Lewis, and Sarah Bibber about her spectral torments during Martin’s hearing and at other times; statements from Reverend Parris, Nathaniel Ingersoll, and Thomas Putnam concerning what they saw the afflicted do and say at certain times; and statements from various neighbors in Amesbury who had had unfortunate encounters with her.” Still, for more than 400 pages, from the initial set of introductions that portray the six women effectively and include some imagined thoughts for each, through the events that ran from February 1692 to May 1693, Roach shows how thoroughly she has researched her subject (on which she has written before and is considered an expert) while also giving modern readers something to think about in our own days of social and political witch hunts. Six Women of Salem is primarily for those already familiar with and fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials – for whom it may not shed new light on the events themselves, but will provide a greater sense of the real-world lives of those who engaged in and were victimized by those events.

     Young Mr. Roosevelt deals with much more recent history and a much better known individual, but it is of more limited interest than Roach’s book. Stanley Weintraub here focuses on Franklin Delano Roosevelt from his appointment at age 31, in 1913, to the post of assistant secretary of the Navy, through his gaining of the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1920. There is a modicum of almost-titillation here – this was the period when FDR, estranged from his wife, Eleanor, became involved with Lucy Mercer – but Weintraub is too focused on Washington infighting and political issues (and appears to be too much of an old-fashioned gentleman) to place the affair front-and-center in his narrative. Weintraub prefers writing like this: “By then, TR [Teddy Roosevelt] (still ‘the Colonel’ to those on his side) had ended his relationship with The Outlook and begun publishing articles through the Wheeler Syndicate, including two for The New York Times criticizing [Woodrow] Wilson’s ‘infirmity of purpose.’ The Colonel sought a larger audience for his burgeoning pro-British truculence, and Franklin, encouraged by the more militant admirals on the Department staff in Washington, conceded that passive neutrality was shortsighted, and that intervention, however deferred by distance, was inevitable. ‘The difference, I think,’ TR explained to Rudyard Kipling, ‘is to be found in the comparative widths of the [English] Channel and the Atlantic Ocean.’” Those who enjoy political and literary name-dropping will find plenty of it here – especially the former type – while those fascinated by the intricacies of policymaking and infighting in Washington will be delighted to learn, if they do not know it already, that backstabbing, half-truths and changing loyalties are scarcely anything new. FDR fanciers who want to know more about the way he rose from inconsequential playboy state senator to major national political figure will find much to enthrall them in Young Mr. Roosevelt, and anyone who happens upon the book by chance will surely be fascinated by the photos showing a young, vigorous and decidedly not wheelchair-bound FDR (he did not contract polio until 1921). But the book is strictly for those so enamored of FDR that they want to know a great deal about the early political events that turned him into a towering figure after the time chronicled here. Surely there are many politicians today – Democrats and Republicans alike – who wish for the sort of presidential power that FDR wielded seven to eight decades ago. But those were deeply different times nationally as well as internationally, and while FDR will no doubt continue to fascinate historians (obviously including Weintraub) for years to come, it is doubtful that those without strong historical or political involvements will find a great deal to interest them in this chronicle of FDR’s first years on the national stage.

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