Witch story haunts tale of girls’ ill­ness

Salem witch story looms large over tale of girls’ ill­ness

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Mary Horodyski Mary Horodyski works as an archival re­searcher in Win­nipeg.

AMYS­TE­RI­OUS ill­ness is at­tack­ing the teenage girls of pres­ti­gious St. Joan’s Academy in Mas­sachusetts. One by one, the girls suc­cumb to tics, con­vul­sions and a va­ri­ety of symp­toms: a star ath­lete sud­denly can’t walk, an­other girl loses all her hair at once, an­other hacks up balls of pins.

Of­fi­cials ini­tially think the ill­nesses are re­ac­tions to a vac­cine, then it is sur­mised the girls have PAN­DAS, a neu­ro­log­i­cal com­pli­ca­tion to pre­vi­ous bouts of strep throat. As dozens of stu­dents fall ill, the di­ag­no­sis of con­ver­sion dis­or­der — when emo­tional stress is con­verted into phys­i­cal symp­toms — is fi­nally ac­cepted.

Or maybe not. See­ing that the school is in Dan­vers, Mass. — for­merly known as Salem Vil­lage — per­haps the real rea­son for the trou­ble is witch­craft.

Con­ver­sion is best­selling Amer­i­can au­thor Kather­ine Howe’s third novel in five years, and her sec­onds us­ing the story of Salem’s witch tri­als. This novel is her first in the young adult cat­e­gory, but adult fans will also en­joy this sus­pense­ful and richly lay­ered fic­tion that of­fers both con­tem­po­rary and his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives.

Howe, her­self a de­scen­dent of two of the women de­clared as witches dur­ing the Salem panic, takes the plot­lines of a re­cent 2011 news story of mys­te­ri­ous ill­ness at Le Roy girls’ school in New York state and in­ter­weaves an ac­count of the 17th-century Salem witch tri­als.

Into this caul­dron, Howe adds the fa­mil­iar high school text of Arthur Miller’s The Cru­cible, it­self a retelling of the Salem events. Colleen Row­ley, the teenaged pro­tag­o­nist of Con­ver­sion, re­ceives anony­mous text mes­sages about The Cru­cible, her younger brother in­ex­pli­ca­bly steals her copy of the book, and af­ter the reg­u­lar English teacher sud­denly leaves the school, the “badass” English sub­sti­tute as­signs The Cru­cible to Colleen for an ex­tra-credit re­search es­say.

Read­ing The Cru­cible brings Colleen to her own ideas about what is re­ally hap­pen­ing to her class­mates “who are twitch­ing and flap­ping like dy­ing fish.”

Colleen is a smart, highly driven se­nior stu­dent acutely con­scious of the so­cial mores and cliques in St. Joan’s Academy. She is groom­ing her­self for ac­cep­tance to Har­vard, and knows to one-tenth of a grade point how far be­hind she is in her com­pe­ti­tion to be school vale­dic­to­rian. Re­ceiv­ing 65 per cent on a pop quiz sends her into parox­ysms of anx­i­ety.

For Colleen, se­nior year at school “is ba­si­cally the mo­ment that sets up the rest of our en­tire lives and whether we’re go­ing to be suc­cess­ful and get ev­ery­thing we want or whether we’re go­ing to die alone in a ditch in the snow.”

As her class­mates de­velop bizarre symp­toms, ru­mours fly fast and fu­ri­ous on Face­book and Twit­ter. Some of the af­flicted girls ap­pear on na­tional tele­vi­sion talk shows, and the school be­comes the site of a me­dia cir­cus. On the pe­riph­ery of all this mayhem are boyfriends whose sin­cer­ity is mea­sured by how quickly, and how of­ten, they re­ply to text mes­sages.

Al­though the lives of ed­u­cated and priv­i­leged mod­ern teen girls may seem un­re­lated to the do­mes­tic labour of girls in 17th-century Salem, who were not even al­lowed to learn to read, Howe draws par­al­lels in the pres­sures of their lives. She also skil­fully ren­ders the way both com­mu­ni­ties, os­ten­si­bly run by grown-ups, still of­fered lit­tle in the way of use­ful adult as­sis­tance to the teen girls, leav­ing them on their own to suf­fer and strug­gle, get taken by mob frenzy, or pros­per by what­ever means avail­able.

Howe bases the con­tem­po­rary plot of the novel on the real-life hap­pen­ings at Le Roy school but sets a spook­ier tone with the al­most Gothic at­mos­phere of her in­vented St. Joan’s Academy. Howe’s use of red her­rings, her skill in cre­at­ing sus­pense and the echo­ing of the Salem witch story keeps read­ers guess­ing about the ul­ti­mate forces mess­ing up — and giv­ing power to — the lives of teenage girls.

LAURA DANDANEAU PHOTO

Au­thor Kather­ine Howe is a de­scen­dent of two women ac­cused of be­ing witches in Salem, Mass.

Con­ver­sion By Kather­ine Howe G.P. Put­nam’s Sons,

414 pages, $21

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