At least in my mind. The visit actually ended a week ago. The first thing I wanted to do when I came home was read my favorite books set in Salem. If your students read The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter (yes, I know that one’s set in Boston), and they’re looking for more books about Salem, you might try steering them toward these books.
Katherine Howe’s novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane begins on the cusp of the Salem witch trials. Deliverance Dane is a healer, a wise woman accused of witchcraft. The difference between Deliverance and others accused is that Deliverance actually is a witch. This novel follows the stories of several of Deliverance’s descendants, including Connie Goodwin, the protagonist of the story. Connie is a history graduate student, and we first meet her during her oral examination. The novel is highly readable. Howe has clearly done her research, and she’s truly writing what she knows—she herself is a doctoral student in history and the descendant of two accused witches—Elizabeth Proctor, who survived the trials, and Elizabeth Howe, who did not.
Kathleen Kent’s novel The Heretic’s Daughter is billed as “a gripping and original first novel based on family history from a descendant of a condemned Salem witch.” Told from the point of view of Sarah Carrier, daughter of Martha Carrier, who was condemned and hanged during the witch trials, the novel vividly explores the events of the trials. Kent herself is a descendant of the Carriers. This novel is geared toward a young adult audience and might be perfect for literature circles about the Salem witch trials (and I think I just had a really good idea for American literature this year after typing that sentence).
Fewer people read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables than its more famous counterpart, The Scarlet Letter, but some readers, including poet James Russell Lowell, felt that Seven Gables was even better than The Scarlet Letter. The house that inspired the story is a tourist attraction in Salem. Hawthorne’s birthplace has been moved to the same grounds. After visiting the house, I feel there is little wonder why the home inspired Hawthorne. The novel tells the story of the Pyncheon family, cursed because of the role an ancestor played in the witch trials. Fun fact: the Pyncheon family actually existed and are the ancestors of writer Thomas Pynchon, so you get a two for one connection.
Brunonia Barry’s novel The Lace Reader is more of a modern novel of Salem, but readers are treated to descriptions of the kitschy embrace of its witchcraft history that can be found in modern Salem. The novel centers around Towner Whitney, who is returning to Salem upon the death of a beloved aunt. Towner shares her aunt’s ability to read the future through patterns in lace. Several Salem landmarks are depicted, including the statue of Roger Conant and Red’s Sandwiches. The novel explores Towner’s quest to save herself and figure out who she is. It might be more interesting to more mature female students as opposed to male students, but I enjoyed it when I read it some time ago.
Brunonia Barry’s second novel The Map of True Places is also set in Salem, where the author lives. This novel explores the long-term effects of the suicide of protagonist Zee’s mother. Perhaps because Barry herself returned to Salem after an absence, her novels explore characters who also come back to Salem and the complex psychological associations we have with place and home. The title is drawn from a Melville quote: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” Isn’t the cover gorgeous?
So, if you fancy a visit to Salem, give one of these books a try. If you’ve read them, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.