From a Whisper to a Scream

Deliverance from Evil
By Frances Hill (Overlook Press)

In the recesses of America's collective psyche, there's a dark area of madness. Madness of the kind that took place in the God-fearing Puritan village of Salem in 1692, when a group of pubescent girls orchestrated so much mayhem that they destroyed the lives of hundreds of people, and caused more than a dozen upstanding citizens to be hanged as witches. How could it have happened in a rational society? How could people have stood by to let such madness play out? And if it happened once, can it happen again?  

In Deliverance from Evil, Hill has given the events of the Salem Witch Trials a novelist's eye, after four non-fiction books on the subject. With the novel form, she is able to get in close and weave her historical knowledge into a vivid and fast-moving story of one man's horrifying fall from grace. Within a few months, George Burroughs goes from local hero to the Devil's consort, from beloved pastor to tortured prisoner, finally to be hanged in the town square. 

Burroughs, like all the central characters in the story, was a real person, and the main events of his story are true: A popular and respected New England pastor. Burroughs and his wife, Mary, fled from Indian attackers in Maine in early 1692 to the supposed safety of Salem. Once there, he quickly became caught up in the terror, accused of confederacy with the devil and held for months in a dark cell as his devoted wife fought a futile battle for his release. The hopes, fears, passions, and nobility ascribed to them both are Hill's own embroidery, and they make the inevitable end feel simultaneously repellent and moving.

We will never really understand how the local girls who made the first accusations arrived at the idea of Devilry, how they dared to carry it out, persuaded so many to join them, and could allow the executions to keep taking place. By the time the collective craziness wore off, 150 people had been imprisoned and tortured, and 15, including Burroughs, were dead. 

Even the cost to the survivors was vast: in displacement, broken friendships, the old social order, and the belief in the immutability of the law. In the aftermath of the witch trials, who, and what, was left to trust?

Like the best historical fiction, Deliverance from Evil makes the chilling events both indelibly humanized and painfully real. Hill makes one of America's strangest episodes of mass hysteria come vividly to life by making us care about the people who lived and died through it. She fleshes out the grim events with vivid descriptions of the households and public places where they happened. She evokes the vulnerability of the settlers to Indian attacks, the rigid social mores of Puritan life, and the corruption of officals who use the facade of public good to settle personal scores. 

At the heart of the maelstrom, she places decent, tenderhearted people, who continue to fight for decency and truth. In getting to know them, we share their fear and their powerlessness in the face of rampant evil, masquerading as the common good. - Sue Woodman

Ms. Woodman is an ex-Brit and veteran journalist with a keen eye for detail.