Wicked Girls: A Novel of the Salem Witch Trials by Stephanie Hemphill. (Grades 7+) HarperCollins, July 2010. 408 pages. Review copy provided by my local library.
Ann's the queen bee, daughter of the most important man in town, always gets her way.
Mercy's the pretty one, catching the eye of every boy (and man) in town. She doesn't have money or status like some of the other girls, but that doesn't keep her from wanting to live like it.
Margaret's the plain one next to her cousin Ann, pining over Isaac and wondering if he'll ever return her affections.
Oh, and did I mention that it's 1692? And these three girls are about to cause a stir in Salem?
When two young girls come down with a mysterious affliction, rumors of witchcraft spread throughout the town. Ann sees the attention the girls are getting and, anxious for some power of her very own, she convinces the girls to play along, blaming witches for the hysterical fits they're putting on. In a world so utterly restrictive to girls and women, is it any wonder that they relished their power? But when innocent blood is spilled, they'll have to decide if it's worth it. In this fictional story based on the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, author Stephanie Hemphill examines what might have been going on inside the minds of the "afflicted" girls.
Between the subject matter and the verse format, this book is packed with teen appeal. The pages go quickly and Ms. Hemphill does a nice job of showing why the girls might have acted as they did. I could totally buy her premise that in their restricted lives each of the girls clung to whatever bit of power she was able to scrape up. These are 17th-century Mean Girls.
I did have a couple of problems. First of all, I couldn't keep the narrators straight because their voices were too similar. There wasn't anything that discerned between them except the name of the character speaking under each poem's title. In a story with multiple perspectives, you need to be able to tell the characters apart.
Secondly, I am not at all an expert and I do understand that this was a fictionalized account, but at least one of the characters referred to "bloomers" on multiple occasions throughout the book. "Bloomers" were named after Amelia Bloomer who popularized the undergarments in the 1850s. I'm of two minds about issues of historical inaccuracy in fiction. Okay, it's a small thing and maybe Ms. Hemphill just used that word because it'd be something her audience would be familiar with or because it fit the cadence of the poems better. And it's underwear, who cares, right? But it was enough to jolt me out of the story each time I heard it (and I actually put down the book the last time so that I could go look up bloomers and see if I was right that it was anachronistic), so to me that's a problem. Plus, it's got me thinking that if there was one inaccuracy, maybe there are more that I don't know enough to catch. I get that it's fiction, but I also want my historical fiction to be, well, historically accurate.
(All that said, I am not an expert on historical undergarments. Anyone know more about this than me and want to chime in? Also, I'm interested to know what you think about piddly details in historical fiction. Is it okay to get them not-quite-right because they're just little details or do you want exacting accuracy? Is it okay if the author addresses it in her author's note? Is it okay if it helps the modern audience understand what's going on, even if it's not mentioned in the author's note?)
Ahem. ANYhoo. Ms. Hemphill does include an author's note, which I loooove. I believe that she did a great deal of research for this book. She also includes information about each historical figure that the characters in the book were based on. Most interesting to me, perhaps, was the information about what happened to each of the historical figures after the Salem Witch Trials were over.
To sum up: Wicked Girls has a lot of potential teen appeal. The format didn't quite work for me, but I liked the book well enough. I'd definitely recommend it to fans of historical novels-in-verse. It maybe most reminded me of The Apprentice's Masterpiece by Melanie Little, so I'd recommend that as a readalike. Also, teens interested in the Salem Witch Trials should check out Ann Rinaldi's A Break With Charity (and The Crucible, of course, but teens probably get that one in school).
Read more reviews at ReaderGirls, Dog-Eared and Well-Read, and Pure Imagination.
Wicked Girls is on shelves now!