Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review: Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill

Every time I'm ready to write off verse novels, something pulls me back. The last verse novels I read were back in April, Firefly Letters and Crossing Stones and I concluded that, for me, verse novels really only work when they're contemporary stories. For historical novels, I need a vested interest in the material. Then along comes Wicked Girls, covering the Salem Witch Trials that have fascinated me for as long as I can poetry.

Wicked Girls: A Novel of the Salem Witch TrialsThe basic story is well-known by now: in 1692, a group of young women and girls in Salem Village started accusing their neighbors of witchcraft. What followed was a literal witch hunt, as the authorities were determined to drive out all hints of sin in their village, and relied on the testimony of the girls to send 19 people to their deaths, and scores more to prison.

Wicked Girls delves into the inner lives of Mercy Lewis, Margaret Walcott and Ann Putnam Jr., following the girls and their cohorts from the initial incriminations through to the bitter end. Hemphill hypothesizes what drew the girls to accusations of witchcraft and why they continue even in the face of doubts.

I'm truly torn about this book, because on the one hand, Hemphill has crafted an amazing story. There are many theories about why the girls began crying witch, and Hemphill explores the possibility that the girls were essentially drunk on power. Once the girls started making accusations, they suddenly had the attention of the entire town. Powerful men were listening to them, and servant girls were just as powerful as the daughters of the merchant class. Some of Mercy's poems were almost physically painful, as she describes being looked at as a powerful person to be respected, rather than a pretty girl to be lusted after by men young and old. Hemphill also explores some scary "mean girl" dynamics, as the ringleaders try to ensure loyalty among the group, showing just how strong peer pressure can be.

On the other hand, as I said at the start of this review, I'm just not a fan of poetry for historical fiction. The poetry itself is fine, though it was more the content that affected me rather than the style. I can't see what the poetry added to this story that couldn't have been achieved through prose. As I said in my Goodreads review, I wanted to give this 2.5 out of 5 stars as a perfect half-way point, reflecting all the good things I felt about the plot that were essentially negated by the format.
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