Salem Witches – Real and Imaginary

9781589791329_p0_v1_s260x420Mary Roach’s new book – The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege – offers a factual account of a riveting piece of history that has fostered fictional plays and novels.  Roach based her nonfiction book on twenty-seven years of original archival research, including the discovery of previously unknown documents, chronicling the real drama of Salem in 1692.  I usually prefer fiction to nonfiction, but having read Roach’s Packing for Mars, I look forward to her unbiased research mixed with her practical humor and cynical perspective.  That said, I still prefer imagining those lives from Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane or Deborah Harkness’ “All Souls Trilogy,” following the fictional modern trials of witch Diana Bishop (A Discovery of Witches).

How true to fact does historical fiction need to be? Do you get stuck on the details that don’t quite fit (if you know them), or let the author’s poetic license weave a story that has universal appeal? Traditionally, historical fiction uses incidents that happened at least a hundred years ago.  Authors expect the reader to make the connections to history, but also understand that the author is creating conversations and actions that probably did not really happen.  (Going back in time to lurk under the bed of all those Elizabethan queens to hear those conversations was not an option for Philippa Gregory).   The more realistic they seem, the better the book. Often a movie follows, with even more digression from the facts.

Authors may offer a disclaimer that their story was inspired by an incident, a person, a place that appears in the book as an anchor, with the rest from the imagination of the writer.  If the authors of historical fiction are not accurate – this is fiction, after all – do they risk misinforming the literal reader?  creating alternative history?  Were the reputations of Frank Lloyd Wright (Loving Frank), and, most recently, Robert Louis Stevenson (Under the Wide and Starry Sky), enhanced by Nancy Horan’s fictional imaginings to their life stories?  Or, do some readers want, like the Queen in Hamlet,  “More matter with less art” ?

What fiction have you read based on real history? How did that work out for you?

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The Map of True Places

“Learn to determine…(your) true destination by looking at the stars…to chart an accurate course…”

Just as she used lace in her historical fiction The Lace Reader to instill traces of New England in the 1600s  that still define the town of Salem, Barry converts the historical drama of the place famous for witches to a modern-day drama – this time using a sextant and stars – in her latest novel – The Map of True Places. Again, Barry successfully mixes mystery, romance, murder and mayhem.

Zee, short for Hepzibah is the daughter of Maureen, a beautiful Irish immigrant mother who suffered from a bipolar personality.   To compensate for the grief and guilt of her mother’s suicide, Zee grows up to be a therapist.  After one of her patients, Lilly, – remarkably close in symptoms to her mother’s –  dies, Zee quits her practice and becomes caretaker to her gay father, suffering from Parkinson’s and dementia.  But  Lilly’s death continues to haunt and drive the story.

The town is central to the tale of Zee’s finding her true North, connecting Zee’s father as an historian with an affinity for Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose house still stands as a tourist attraction, and her mother, a writer with an unfinished story based on colonial star-crossed lovers who lived in the town.


The narrative heats up with the introduction of Hawk, a handsome sailor/itinerant lecturer/carpenter,  described as “a young George Clooney.”  Lurking in the background and making sporadic appearances that spice up the action are the misnamed villain in his red pick-up truck; Melville, Zee’s father’s lover; Mickey, her mother’s Irish brother; and Jessima, the Haitian caregiver and baker.

Barry knows how to create complicated characters who are easy to follow as they tangentially intersect.  The mystery has successful red herrings that lead you astray before becoming satisfyingly apparent.  In The Map of True Places,  romance also plays an important role – in Maureen’s unsuccessful quest for true love,  in her projection for Zee’s possibilities, and finally in a quirky climax that brings the dead mother’s fantasy into protective defense for her daughter.

The ending brings it all together, and you’ll go away convinced that Salem still has some magic.