This novel of the Salem witchcraft hysteria and subsequent trials centers around two orphans. If everything were black and white instead of shades of grey, Abigail Williams would be the darkness and her traveling companion Mercy Lewis would be the light. But things are never that simple, and there are many shades of grey between black and white, and both characters are complex and well-developed. First there is mercurial, brazen and lusty, self-interested, attention-seeking, grudge-accumulating Abigail. Then there is good and kind, quiet, pretty, self-educated Mercy, harboring shameful secrets she hopes to keep buried, and longing for love and a better life filled with books and learning.
On their journey to Salem Village to serve in the household of Abigail's uncle, the Reverend Parris, a coach accident brings two young men to their rescue--Ben Nurse a humble farmer, a grandson of the venerable and well-loved and respected midwife Rebecca Nurse, and his profligate and rich friend Joseph Putnam. In mere minutes desires spring to life and are either returned or scorned that will play a crucial part in things to come.
Though a Puritan community, Salem Village could be the prototype for Peyton Place. Litigation and lawsuits, greed, lust for flesh and revenge, gold and property all simmer just below the prim Puritan exterior of Salem. From the pulpit greedy Reverend Parris, who cares more about his tithes than the well-being of his parishioners, thunders about the wrath of God rather than His love and mercy. The local doctor uses his position to molest young women right under their parents' noses. And Goody Osborne, a lonely, crippled, home-bound invalid pays her Irish manservant to share her bed, just to feel the warmth of another body and the touch of a man's hands again. And there is Bridget Bishop the buxom tavern proprietress who in her scarlet bodice stands out like a neon sign among the muted grays, blacks, and browns of the rest and inspires many a wet dream in the boys and men, she is a wise woman, who knowledge of herbs and spells, healing and white magic, a woman who believes in doing no harm lest it come back to you. And Tituba and John Indian, Reverend Parris' slaves from Barbados, who keep silent but know all.
But it is the desires of the two newly arrived orphans, not the town's residents, that will cause quiet little Salem to boil over like a witch's cauldron. Abby lusts for her Uncle the Reverend Parris and Mercy pines for Joseph Putnam, a man who, though his eyes say he desires her, is above her station and already promised to the daughter of local gentry. Befriended by Bridget Bishop, Mercy resorts to a love charm to try to win him.
Abby's eyes are also opened to the supernatural when she spies Tituba dancing in wild, erotic abandon in the woods late one night after ingesting Jimson Weed, also known as Datura, and The Devil's Trumpet. Another night, thinking to catch Tituba again, she sees Mercy bury a mandrake root carved in her beloved's likeness in the graveyard and blackmails her into teaching her what she knows of charms and spells. Abigail steals some little red cakes Tituba baked, auguring cakes, she calls them, and brings them to a picnic with Mercy, to which she also invites a simple-witted farmboy and some other girls of the village. The cakes contain Jimson Weed and all who eat them suffer illness and spells of a kind that will be mistaken for demonic. And a name mumbled by an innocent child being questioned while in this state leads to the first of many arrests. And more follow as the girls and villagers find it is a marvelous way to get out of daily chores and exact revenge on one's enemies.
As the quiet voice of reason, Mercy Lewis is ignored, as is Bridget Bishop, when she tries to help. Both are denounced as witches and imprisoned. And the hysteria and fear continues to mount, whipped along by the attention-seeking antics of Abby. Basking in self-importance and the attention of her uncle, for whom she lusts, she becomes the witch-finder and healer extraordinaire and is seen as a martyr because of her suffering.
The scenes where the accused witches are driven to the gallows on Danver's Hill, and their final moments of life, are truly heartrending and moved me to tears.
This is a book meant to be contemplated and savored. although some readers may find it slow to reach the reach the action I urge anyone who might feel this way to stick with it, I have been reading book about the Salem Witchcraft Trials since I first heard of them as a little girl, and this novel stands out as one of the best on the subject I have ever read.