Monday, October 29, 2012

Book Review: My Enemy's Tears

I was approached by a publicist at the beginning of October about reviewing a book. As I've never reviewed a book before, a very different animal from the discourse analysis writing I did at SFSU, I dithered a bit, but ultimately decided to to try it. As my background is in anthropology and history, I don't usually write about my opinion of a book, I usually write about the institutions and historical forces influencing an author's views.  I confess to being nervous and out of my depth here. I would like to here from you, my lovely readers, about whether this is something you would like me to do in the future or not.  You can leave a comment here, or you can e-mail me.   Thanks!

For many modern witches, especially the ones I know in the United States, the witch trials of colonial New England often capture our imaginations.  They remind us of how lucky we are and at the same time, remind us to be careful about who we trust. While being a minority population is never an easy situation, we have it pretty easy compared to the those men and women who faced allegations of witchcraft in the past.  Religious freedom is now enshrined in law, people have become more tolerant (compared to Puritans), and witchcraft isn't outright illegal anymore. Looking back though, we can see the importance of our freedom.

Karen Vorbeck Williams has recently published a fictionalized account of her ancestor Mary Bliss Parson's life and trial for witchcraft (one of the last and best documented trials for witchcraft in American history), My Enemy's Tears.  It is partially based on her grandmother's stories about Mary (you known how I love alternative histories), and contains a mind-boggling amount of historical research. It's a fascinating look into the complexities of colonial Massachusetts life ( no it wasn't as simple as it is sometimes painted).

The novel begins with Mary's family making the decision to leave England to escape the political and religious upheavals of Charles I's reign.  That decision leads to a huge amount of change for Mary, something we rarely think about in terms of what women and children thought about coming to the New World and how dramatic a change it worldview it was. That part is amazing to read, but the first quarter of the book is also very factually dense and difficult to read.  Descriptions of certain historical events are graphic (due to the gruesome historical texts available  and paint a blood thirsty view of the Native American groups of colonial Massachusetts. I could have done without these descriptions, both from a personal stand point and because of my familiarity with the somewhat colored view of events that it paints.  My least favorite part of the book is the perspective shifts in the first part of the novel that were abrupt and difficult to follow.  Sometimes, the story was following Mary's activities and then inexplicably shifted to some other place and character, often Joseph Parsons, who Mary eventually married. As things progressed, the shifts were easier to understand and follow, which I was very grateful for.  The last quarter of the book goes very quickly, in stark contrast with the beginning.

The conflict of the story is not Mary versus society as might be expected (if you know nothing about Mary Bliss Parsons, like I did,you will be surprised).  It is the conflict between two young women of different classes who knew and liked each other to begin with.  Even after marriage and re-locations, the two found their lives entwined for decades.  Jealousy, bad luck, fear, anger and misunderstandings lead Sarah Lyman Bridgman to accuse Mary Bliss Parsons of witchcraft not once but twice.  Each of these women experienced heartbreaks and difficulties, which would have been typical of the experiences of many women of the time, but one of them held onto the anger, fear and jealousy for decades. 

I enjoyed this novel, once I got past the first quarter; the story telling is vivid (in some places, I could have done without the vivid descriptions of events during the Indian Wars- but that has a lot to do with my own knowledge of them) and full of incredible details like food preparation techniques and medical practices.  It is not a quick read, though.  With so much time and so many important historical events that shape the story, it requires the reader to really pay attention.  Ms. Williams really manages to show her readers a vision of the past that is plausible and believable.  Scents, sounds, colors, textures are fully present and Mary is very likable and human.  She makes mistakes, is full of spirit and can be appreciated as full of life, even at the worst moments in the story.

With Samhain coming, this book is a wonderful way to get into the frame of mind to appreciate our fore mothers, especially those who lived in the frontiers of America, whose lives are often difficult to investigate in any meaningful fashion do to the biases of history. Records mention the realities of their lives infrequently (for many we are lucky to have their birth, death and marriage dates) and we often can only guess what they thought and felt and how they handles the tough realities of life, especially motherhood and housekeeping.  As my ancestors were also alive in the same time and geographic area that this novel covers, I am thinking about their lives in a way that I haven't in years.  If you have colonial ancestors, this novel might be a good way to get into the mood to start a search for your own roots, it is full of historical details and at the same time, it explores a part of history that has ignored the lives of women. 

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