Park Slope

Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer to visit Park Slope, discuss new book on Salem Witch Trials

Brooklyn BookBeat

October 20, 2015 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Stacy Schiff will be coming to Brooklyn to discuss her new book “The Witches: Salem, 1692.” Photo: Elena Siebert Photography
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In 2010, Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Stacy Schiff released her universally celebrated No. 1 bestseller (and New York Times Top 10 Book of the Year) “Cleopatra.” Now, she turns her penetrating gaze and distinctive voice to a subject closer to home, as she takes on the greatest unsolved American mystery: the Salem witch trials. “The Witches: Salem, 1692” (Little, Brown; Oct. 27, 2015), is as psychologically riveting as the trials were themselves historically seminal. Film rights have been optioned by Scott Rudin/Sony Pictures.

Schiff will be in Brooklyn on Nov. 12 at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope for the Brooklyn by the Book series, where she will be interviewed by Jodi Kantor.

It began in 1692, over an exceptionally cold Massachusetts winter, when a minister’s daughter began to scream and convulse. It ended less than a year later, after 19 men and women — and two dogs — had been executed for witchcraft. The panic spread quickly, involving the most educated men and prominent politicians in the fledgling colony. Accusations flew — neighbors accused neighbors, children accused their parents, siblings each other. Vividly capturing the mood of 17th century Massachusetts, Schiff paints an indelible portrait of a dark, unsettled time, when the colony braced itself daily against Native American attack and English oversight, when anxiety rippled everywhere just under the surface. She draws us effortlessly into a fascinating world, breathing new life into a long-misconstrued tale.

Aside from suffrage, the Salem witch trials represent the only moment when women played a central role in American history. Again, Schiff explores the troubling intersection between women and power. Her questions about the Salem settlers resonate deeply today: How do women express themselves when they are meant to be silent? How are their words interpreted or mangled? How does a society handle female self-expression and empowerment?

Drawing on years in the archives and hewing closely to extant papers and first-person accounts, Schiff delivers an American thriller that will enchant any reader. Harvard University’s David D. Hall says, “‘The Witches’ is as close as we will ever come to understanding what happened in and around Salem in 1692.” Schiff examines the legal and social ramifications of the trials, the truth about witchcraft, the adolescent mind and how in curious ways the events of 1692 shaped America’s future. She discovers stunning parallels between 1692 and our world today, between oral culture and an Internet one, noting the contagious nature of terror, bullying and public shaming. The result is a gorgeously written, deeply nuanced and powerful book that will stand as the definitive account of Salem.


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