Ten-year-old Abigail is often in trouble in her Puritan community. She’s a little too energetic, a little too outspoken. But her own occasional time in the stocks suddenly pales in comparison to larger problems in the community. Nearby Salem Village has recently discovered witches amongst the villagers, and there is talk that even her hometown of Andover may be infested as well. Her grandfather, the town preacher, is convinced that the girls in Salem are lying, though for what purpose, no one can tell.
Then the worst happens: suspicion falls on Abigail’s household. Her father has always been unlike other people, prone to spells of depression and anxiety, and in the context of witchcraft this behavior is suddenly ominous. As the panic in town reaches a fever pitch, Abigail, her older sister Dorothy, and her Aunt Elizabeth are all accused of witchcraft, and sent to the filthy, rat-infested jail to await a trial that will not occur for months, a jail where every mouthful of food must be dearly paid for. There are only three options. Abigail can lie and say that she is a witch, at which point she’ll be kept in the jail, where women are dying daily. She can refuse to “confess” and be hanged. Or she could accuse another person of being a witch and claim that that person made her do it. But how could she possibly subject someone else to the same misery she is experiencing?
Books featuring the Salem Witch Trials – and they are legion – almost universally focus on the first accusations in Salem, and the majority feature the girls, both manipulators and the manipulated, who were doing the accusing. It is intriguing to see the other side of the story, the children and adults who were accused of witchcraft and then left with absolutely no way to prove their innocence. The slow spread of rumors and suspicion is done well. I liked that the author did not try to make Abigail or her sisters anachronistically unworried about the threat of witches. Even as she is thrown into jail on a false accusation, Abigail still worries that perhaps some of the other women in the jail cell with her really are witches.
The relationships between all of the family members was particularly well done. It was interesting to see a mentally ill parent depicted as something other than abusive or neglectful, the usual route in children’s fiction. While Abigail is initially resentful and angry about her father’s frequent bouts with depression and paranoia, she comes to recognize that they are out of his control. Her father, though perhaps not as strong or determined as her mother, is never shown to be anything less than caring.