In Susan Fair’s history guidebook, she leads you through the tiniest sliver of United States history. Of course, discussions of Salem and the most infamous of witch trials in the US takes up a solid chunk of the book. But Fair even delves into modern history, and how the lingering superstitious attitudes about witches have affected a small town in the twenty-first century.
A quick and dirty take on history, this book features modernized language, empathy for the victims, and clear derision for those on the wrong side of history.
What is American Witches: A Broomstick Tour Through Four Centuries about?
This book is ostensibly a brief research account of reports of witchcraft and witch trials throughout American history. Fair does acknowledge that witchcraft manifests differently based on culture, and tries to separate accounts from Native American sources and white sources, as well as describing the cultural background of the people involved in various accounts. Ultimately, though, the book ends up being about two major cases: the Salem Witch trials (unsurprisingly) and the Blair Witch (a bit of a shock). There are certainly other witches and trials described. Fair tends to focus on a specific character and tell the story of the accusations and persecutions around that particular person’s experience, which is certainly one way to tell the story of American witchcraft.
Genre: Popular History
“Popular history” is a term used by historians to describe a book that is written with historical research but for a general audience. This is different from a historical fiction novel, obviously, but also different from a researched and compiled text used by historians and other researchers to conduct further research and produce other books and papers. As a historian and archaeologist, I would never use Fair’s writing as a citation but I may refer to it in a discussion of popular history or the American history of witchcraft and its public fascination.
Research: Half baked
I’ll be honest, I was not impressed by Fair’s research. Perhaps it really was extensive and this was just a poor presentation of it, but I felt that her perspective was far too narrow. For example, she cites the last trial of witchcraft in the United States as happening in the 1800’s but the last trial actually began in the 1990’s and wasn’t fully resolved until after 2000. Perhaps she was using different parameters in her research, but I felt that she misrepresented the history she purported to speak of. Broomstick Tour is a good way of putting it because she covered about as much history as you’d expect on an hour long ghost tour of a city.
New Ideas: None?
A major factor in any history book or paper is the presentation of new ideas. What does your research reveal about a topic and what can you contribute to the existing body of knowledge? What Susan Fair’s book purports to contribute is a brief guide to four centuries worth of American witchcraft accusations and trials. Unfortunately, the execution adds nothing unique to the topic. No new knowledge was really presented, only a condensed discussion of the Salem witch trials and a few other accounts. The most unique aspect of this book was the presentation of Native American witch hunts, but that was quickly left aside for the main event (bashing Cotton Mather).
There was some humorous language in this book. Fair clearly sympathized with the victims of the various witch trials described, and made plenty of jokes about the tormentors. This book is pretty functional as a comedy or satire book about the history of witchcraft in America, if only that had been its presentation. While misplaced in general, I did also enjoy the final section regarding the Blair Witch movie and how it so dramatically affected the real town the film is based on. This was a genuinely interesting note to end things on, though it had absolutely nothing to do with the content of the rest of the book.
The research wasn’t horrendously done, real sources were discussed and consulted, and some genuinely interesting facts were presented. While Fair’s presentation was decidedly “ghost tour” like, just like a ghost tour there were interesting things discussed. However, much as I love a ghost tour, the primary function of them is to visit the location in question which allows for the more casual presentation of historical fact and fiction. Since Fair’s tour is one across multiple locations (though decidedly most in New England) and not a physical tour, it comes across as flat. The humor aspects are far more entertaining in a conversation than in a history book.
As I’ve already mentioned, the researched was not presented well. This book largely comes across as a casual conversation with an enthusiast rather than a well researched account of historical witchcraft trials. Additionally, there’s some questionable language that may be offensive in its usage as well as notable inaccuracies. There is no overarching theme that ties together the chosen accounts and this is by no means a comprehensive look at witchcraft trials in America. It simply…isn’t what it claims to be on any level. Now, for what it is the book is entertaining and interesting.
All in all this book was mostly disappointing. It made me laugh a couple of times, but the tone can’t make up for the poor research and inaccurate presentation of that research. This book is definitely best suited for someone with no knowledge of the topic who wants a comedic introduction to the history of witchcraft and witchcraft accusations in America. Otherwise, you’ll likely be disappointed and bored by what history is included at all.
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