Review: Conversion, Katherine Howe, narrated by Khristine Hvam

My most recent audio book was Conversion by Katherine Howe and read by Khristine Hvam. Conversion alternates between two stories. Colleen Rowley is a high school senior at St. Joan’s Academy in Danvers, Massachusetts. She’s currently in a heated competition for school valedictorian and is stressed about getting into Harvard. Her classmates suddenly develop mysterious ailments—one girl has an apparent seizure, but soon another girl is losing her hair, while others develop tics and coughing fits. What is going on?

The other story is that of Ann Putnam, Jr., one of accusers in the Salem Witch Trials, and a real historical figure who later confessed to being “deluded by Satan” and apologized for her role in the deaths. As she tells the story of her involvement in the trials to Reverend Green, it becomes increasingly clear she’s still disturbed (which might not be historically accurate, but it was fun). What exactly caused the girls of Salem Village to think they were bewitched in 1692? And what was wrong with the girls at St. Joan’s 320 years later?

When Colleen is given an extra credit assignment by her AP US History teacher to read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and write a paper about why Miller changed the details connected to some of the girls—Ann Putnam in particular—she discovers an eerie connection between the events in the Witch Trials and the girls’ illnesses at St. Joan’s that no one else seems to have noticed.

Katherine Howe has written about Salem before, particularly in The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (which happens to be one of my favorite historical fiction novels). In fact, Deliverance Dane, her daughter Mercy, and her descendant Connie Goodwin all make cameo appearances in this novel (which I rather enjoyed). In this case, she was also inspired the the story of a mysterious illness that afflicted students at at high school in Le Roy, New York. The true cause of the “hysteria” in the Witch Trials has been debated, and we will likely never have an answer—just perhaps more plausible theories. In juxtaposing the events in modern-day Danvers (which used to be Salem Village) and Puritan Salem, Howe shows us it’s just possible that the girls were under a great deal of stress and that their treatment as girls and, in some cases, lower class servants, contributed to the deaths of innocent people when the witchcraft accusations began to fly. It’s certainly a plausible explanation and takes into account that perhaps the girls really were faking at first and later became caught up in a shared delusion.

Conversion is a highly enjoyable book that has a lot to say about the stress teenagers are under in today’s competition for grades and college spots and also the ways in which we discount teens’ voices. I should think that teenagers would find a lot to relate to, and at the same time, they would learn some interesting things about American history and literature.

The narrator, Khristine Hvam, did an excellent job not only capturing the voices of the teenaged girls, but also the old New England cadence of Ann Putnam’s speech. She was perfect for the novel, and she’s one of the better book narrators I’ve heard. I am really glad I listened to the audio book with the exception of one reason: the Author’s Note was not included in the reading, and it has some interesting information for readers. I had to track it down so I could read it.

I really liked this interview at Bustle and this other review at the Nerdy Book Club.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

(P. S.: Some of the novel is set in the past, but as the focus is more on the present, I have decided not to count it for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.)

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Review: The Wolves of Andover, aka The Traitor’s Wife, Kathleen Kent

Kathleen Kent’s novel The Wolves of Andover, also known as The Traitor’s Wife, is something of a prequel to The Heretic’s Daughter, a novel told from the viewpoint of Sarah Carrier, daughter of Martha Carrier, who was executed in the Salem Witch Trials. The Wolves of Andover tells the story of the courtship Thomas Carrier and Martha Allen alternating with the story of several conspirators of Charles II bound for America to find and capture the man who cut off the head of Charles I in the English Civil War.

As the story begins, Martha is sent to her cousin Prudence Taylor’s house to serve as Prudence prepares to give birth to her third child. Her husband Daniel is often away on business, but two men, Thomas and John, work for Taylor household in the hopes of earning a piece of Taylor’s land. Whispers surround Thomas Carrier. Some claim that he was the regicide, the man who wielded the very axe that struck King Charles’s head from his shoulders. He is uncommonly tall and possessed of a quiet air of mystery. Martha soon finds herself in love with him. Meanwhile, several men in the employ of spy Tiernan Blood make their way across the Atlantic after a harrowing journey in an attempt to find the Welshman, known as Thomas Morgan, and capture him for execution in London. What they don’t realize is that Oliver Cromwell’s old followers have spies of their own, too.

One of the things I realized reading this book is that I have never really given a lot of thought to the ways in which the English Civil War created America, and (it could be argued) led to the American Revolution. Of course, I knew the early founders of Massachusetts were Puritans, and of course I knew Cromwell was a Puritan, too, but for some reason, perhaps because it’s the story we always tell, I always pictured the Puritans who settled New England as religious dissidents instead of political ones. I don’t think our own history plays up the role the Puritans played in the English Civil War very much, probably because the first group of Puritans to arrive in America came well before the English Civil War began; however, successive waves of Puritans arriving later must surely have included soldiers who fought with Cromwell, even if the greatest wave of Puritan migration occurred before the English Civil War. It certainly stands to reason that these early settlers had quarrels with the monarchy and that they passed their feelings down to their children and children’s children.

I was able to hear Kathleen Kent speak at an English teachers’ conference several years ago, so I know that she descends from the Carrier family, which is partly why the subject matter intrigues her. Though Martha Carrier’s notoriety is more established, as a documented victim of the Salem Witch Trials, Thomas Carrier’s is somewhat more speculative and based more on family and local legends.

The Wolves of AndoverThe violence in the book can be graphic, and I definitely was glad I was reading it instead of watching it, though nothing seemed so gratuitous that it strained credulity. The violence also offered an interesting contrast between the monarchists and the Puritans, who are painted as hardy survivalists, but ultimately peaceable and good people. To be fair, the monarchists presented are probably the worst sort of folks imaginable, but Charles II himself is not depicted in a good light (though I give props to the writer who does manage to make Charles II look like a fairly decent human being).

The stage for Martha Carrier’s later accusation is deftly set as Martha comes across as contentious and headstrong (which is why she’s not married at the book’s beginning). Another spoilery incident I won’t recount adds additional evidence to the pile.

Martha Carrier
I took this picture of Martha Carrier’s memorial on our trip to Salem.

Knowing how Martha Carrier’s story will ultimately end lends sadness to this book, but Thomas Carrier emerges as quite the character, and one of those folks family historians love to weave tales around—a Welshman who changed his name and has mysterious antecedents, who was nearly seven feet tall, who lived to be about 109. He’s a little hard to resist.

Upon its paperback release, the book’s title was changed, hence the two names. Since it appears to be more readily available in paperback form, I have linked to that version of the book. To my knowledge, the title and cover design are the only changes made.

Rating: ★★★★½


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The Heretic’s Daughter

The Heretic’s Daughter: A NovelKathleen Kent has a personal stake in telling the story of Martha Carrier, who was executed for witchcraft during the Salem witch trials: she is a tenth generation descendant of Martha Carrier. The Heretic’s Daughter is a story of the witch trials told through the point of view of eleven-year-old Sarah Carrier, Martha’s daughter, who herself was one of the youngest among the accused. In fact, the real Sarah Carrier was younger than Kent’s Sarah by about five years!

Sarah describes contention against her family and the climate of Andover, Billerica, and surrounding environs prior to the witch trials. She doesn’t understand her mother’s ways, and they seem to be at odds with each other all the time. Then whispers of witchcraft start finding their way to Sarah’s ears, and before long the entire Carrier family is embroiled in the trials.

Martha Carrier
I took this picture of Martha Carrier's memorial on our trip to Salem. Click for larger version.

The Heretic’s Daughter is beautifully written and poignant. However, it’s also slow to start. The first half of the book moved slowly for me, but after the witch trials begin, the book finds its stride and moves quickly. I read the second half in one sitting. I did enjoy Kent’s portrayal of the Carrier family’s contentiousness, which does much to explain why their neighbors turn on them—and in fact, it was often contentious men and women who were accused. It’s also refreshing to read a book that seeks to portray the accused realistically instead of glorifying them as saints. It is mostly well-researched and rings true with the exception one glaring mistake—Giles Corey, one of the most famous figures in the trials because of his resistance and his major role in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, is called Miles Corey in this book. Not only is that a strange mistake given the attention to detail Kent otherwise displays, but it’s astonishing that an an editor didn’t catch the error. However, setting that issue aside, the book itself is more accurate than Miller’s play, and I found it much more enjoyable to read, too.

I’m glad I persevered with this book through the slow beginning—which did have some beautiful passages, good description, and it laid essential groundwork—the second half of the book was worth the investment. Readers might also be interested in Maud Newton’s interview with Kent.

Rating: ★★★★☆

R.I.P. Challenge V

This book is my second book for the R.I.P. Challenge, which means I have officially finished at the level to which I committed; however, I am going to read Dracula, My Love and Wuthering Bites in the hope that I can read four books and move up a level in the challenge.

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Katherine Howe and Me

Re-Reading The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Katherine Howe and MeAfter my trip to Salem in July, I have been reading books set there, and I just finished a re-read of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. I found the book as enjoyable the second time as I did the first. I’d really like to read some more books set in Salem, but aside from The House of Seven Gables, I don’t have any on hand. I decided to go forward with the Everything Austen Challenge and read Syrie James’s The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. I’m looking forward to reading her newest book, Dracula, My Love. Anyone reading that one?

My students seemed interested to hear about my trip to Salem. Many of them had read The Crucible last year, and they remembered the characters. I told them I had seen Judge Hathorne’s grave and all the memorials for each of the people who were executed. I think I’ll have a lot of fun teaching The Crucible this year.

I think I’ll try to start both The House of Seven Gables and The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen tonight.

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Reading Update: August 2, 2010

Finished scarfAfter finishing The Map of True Places, I decided to re-read The Lace Reader. I won’t give away the spoilery ending, but I will say that The Lace Reader is an interesting and different book on a re-read after the reader knows how it ends. I had forgotten that Ann Chase, who appears in The Map of True Places, was also in this book, but when she mentions being friends with Towner Whitney, I looked it up and discovered she had indeed been a character. She is such a fun character and so well drawn. It would be interesting for Barry to give her a story in which she takes center stage. Barry casts Ann Chase as a descendant of Giles and Martha Corey, which isn’t possible because they had no children together. I don’t know if it’s a mistake, poetic license, or Towner’s error. It might have been fun to cast Ann as a descendant of John and Elizabeth Proctor—perhaps even the baby Elizabeth was carrying that saved her life until the hysteria died down. Lace reading is one of those things that sounds so true it’s a bit of a surprise to learn that Brunonia Barry invented it. I’ll bet it has some practitioners now. At any rate, I think I’m actually enjoying this novel more on a re-read than I did the first time around, perhaps because I recently visited the novel’s setting or perhaps because I’m reading it with different eyes knowing the ending. Either way, I’m turning the pages. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Barry signed my paperback copies of The Lace Reader in addition to my copies of The Map of True Places. I won two copies of each book as part of my prize package. I’m on about page 60, but will probably read some more before I call it night.

Aside from The Lace Reader, I’m also reading Georgette Heyer’s Charity Girl for Austenprose’s Celebration of Georgette Heyer. It’s a quick read, but I have to admit that the Regency slang is hard for me to navigate. I have had to use the dictionary a lot (thank goodness I’m reading it on my Kindle, so that’s easy). I have a quibble with the Kindle edition, however. Many of the words are broken up (i.e. to gether) and the paragraphs are formatted wrong. No indentation at the beginning of a new one and little indication of a new paragraph. It’s been maddening to read from an aesthetic viewpoint. I think I’ll finish it quickly. I’m 46% done now.

I am also reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which I have never read. I am teaching American literature again this year, and it’s the only required book for summer reading. The other books are choice books. Because we are supposed to teach the required book as our first unit, I need to read it. It’s not bad, but it’s not really what I want to read right now in my current frame of mind, so I’ve not got too far. I’m also reading it on the Kindle, and I’m 12% finished.

So what are you reading? Is it good?

photo credit: Maria Keays

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Salem Trip

I originally hadn’t planned to post this video of our trip to Salem, MA., but I will share it for a short time. I created it in iMovie using photographs and video taken with our iPhones and Flip camera. It’s a little distorted to fit here, but not substantially so. It clocks in at about 11 minutes.

Trip to Salem, MA., July 2010

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Mark Twain’s Unexpurgated Biography Published

Mark Twain via the Library of CongressMuch speculation has surrounded Mark Twain’s autobiography because of the stipulation in his will that it not be published until 100 years after his death. Many have wondered exactly what he said that was so controversial. Readers won’t have to wait much longer. The New York Times reports that the first of three volumes is set to be published by the University of California Press this November. You can preorder it on Amazon right now. No word yet on when volumes 2 and 3, which are said to contain most of the previously unpublished material, will be published.

Are you going to try to read it?

Other book news this week:

Thursday, July 15 marks the 172nd anniversary of Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s famous Divinity School Address at Harvard Divinity School. Emerson declared Jesus to be a great man, but not divine, and he discounted biblical miracles in this famous address. The controversial speech resulted in Emerson’s not speaking at Harvard for 30 years. You can read the speech here.

Friday July 16 marks the 95th anniversary of the date when Henry James became a British citizen. I can only think of one other American writer—T. S. Eliot—who became a British citizen. Because James died less than a year after becoming a British citizen, most people don’t think of him as an English writer, whereas some people do think of Eliot as English. Can you think of other American writers who became British citizens?

July 16 also marks the 59th anniversary of the publication of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. This book continues to speak to students even today. You can read my reflections about teaching it here and here.

Mickey Spillane died four years ago on July 17.

On July 18, 1925, Adolf Hitler published Mein Kampf. William Makepeace Thackeray was born on July 18, 1811. Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817. Horatio Alger also died on that date in 1899.

On July 19, 1692, five women—Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Sarah Wildes, and Rebecca Nurse—were hanged for witchcraft in Salem, MA. (my visit to Salem begins on that date next week!) The Salem witch trials served as inspiration for Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, as well as one of my favorite YA writers Ann Rinaldi’s book A Break with Charity. Elizabeth Howe is an ancestor of modern writer Katherine Howe, who also used Salem’s witchcraft history as inspiration for her novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (read my review).

On July 19, 1963, Australian author Garth Nix was born. I enjoyed his book Sabriel. My daughter loves his writing.

Transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller died on July 19, 1850. Irish-American writer Frank McCourt died a year ago on July 19, 2009.

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