Susannah Morrow was one of my library borrowings from a few weeks ago. I can’t tell you why I initially picked it up; I guess I’m in a mood for historical fiction, based on two of the other three books I have yet to read from that single library borrowing session. I also picked it up because it tells a tale about the Salem Witch Trials, and that subject is a little close to my heart, seeing as how my friend just wrote a novel that takes place in Salem and also, I love that town.
The novel is composed of four sections, and there are three narrators – one for each section with one character pulling double duty. Now, I’ll be honest: if we fully covered the Salem Witch Trials in history class, I can’t remember it. I remember reading The Scarlet Letter as a junior, and I vaguely remember going to visit the House of Seven Gables and the Witch Museum on a field trip that same year (and I remember when the bus got lost on the ride home, and I remember watching the horrible Demi Moore movie version of The Scarlet Letter, which somehow had a Native American in it? I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen in the book!), but I do not remember learning the reasons behind the witch-hunt beyond reading The Crucible in drama class.
So our first narrator is Charity Fowler, the daughter of Lucas. She is sixteen years old and on the night the book starts, her mother dies giving birth to Charity’s sister, Faith. Her aunt Susannah is brought fresh off the boat from London by Lucas, and Charity immediately distrusts Susannah and her new role within the family.
As the first third of the book continues, Charity’s suspicions mount, and she gets involved with a group of girls who meet at the Parrish house, where Tituba is the maid. Tituba shows the girls white magic – pouring hot wax into cold water from a candle will show your future husband’s occupation; if it looks like a fish, you’ll marry a fisherman (it’s the Salem 1692 edition of MASH) – and as Charity struggles with her piousness and wanting to dislodge Susannah from the Fowler household, she eventually becomes one of the girls who accused more than a hundred members of Salem’s population of witchcraft.
[Okay, here’s the part where I pretend I’m writing statements for the next 45 minutes – basically I don’t really have anything else I have to do at work, and I really want to return the book to the library on my way out tonight. Let’s play the Time-Space Continuum Game!]
[And yes, I totally have work-related windows within an ALT+TAB distance. I’m safe!]
So Charity starts to think her Aunt Susannah is a witch. She also starts to think that Aunt Susannah is bewitching Charity’s father, Lucas. Part of that supposition (and I didn’t get into it much up there because I actually took time to do actual work today) comes from the fact that the residents of Salem are super Puritan.
And this is also part of what I really didn’t get as a student in high school: when the Pilgrims came over to the new land to worship, Puritan means puritan. If you are Puritan, you are not allowed to love anyone more than you love God. Marriage is for protection and sex is for procreation because lust is bad, m’kay? But you aren’t even allowed to love your children more than you love God.
This plays into Charity’s – and Lucas’s – insecurities. Because we see the characters from Charity’s point of view first, we believe that Lucas is distant because he either cared so much for his dead wife; he cares too much about God; or Susannah has bewitched him. But when we see Lucas’s point of view in the second third of the novel, we learn that he is distant because he feels guilty for loving his children more than he loves God.
As a self-admitted heathen, that blew my mind. I can’t imagine any parent loving an incorporeal being (however holy and/or omnipotent one may believe that being to be) more than their child. I should also point out that I am clearly reading this novel with 21st-Century eyes (and heathen eyes at that), so please take all my talk of God and sin with a grain of salt.
In addition to his guilt over his paternal love for his children, Lucas also struggles with lust for Susannah. Compounding his lust-guilt (guilt-lust? not sure which should come first here) is the fact that Susannah feels the same way: she desires Lucas, but knows it’s wrong.
It’s important to note here, however, that Susannah comes from London, and her ways are not the Puritan ways. She … I’m not going to say ‘outright mocks’ Lucas, because I don’t think she’s mocking him; but she does point out some inconsistencies in his beliefs and his actions.
Susannah also is compared – by both Lucas and Charity – to her deceased sister, Judith. Judith was literally a God-fearing woman; she was not one to show affection because she was that devoted to God. When Charity was sixteen, the girl fell in love with her father’s apprentice. She may have let him get to second base. When she was overcome with guilt, she confessed to her mother, who paid the apprentice five pounds to get out of town. That guilt compounded upon her mother’s death, and eventually, the guilt and what she thought was sin led to her vulnerability and gullibility with the girls in town, and that’s what made Charity complicit in naming witches.
The last third of the book is told from Susannah’s point of view, after she’s been accused of witchcraft. Life in the prison is awful yet bearable over time, but what we glean from the other townspeople who join her in prison and the visitors she receives is the overwhelming sense of hysteria and paranoia that invaded the town of Salem during this time. She realizes exactly what is pushing the citizens of Salem towards this literal witch hunt:
They wanted explanations of why things happened, reasons they could understand and believe: If Indians attack your village and kill your mothers and fathers, ’tis the Devil who has led them here, because you have done something wrong. If little John dies of a strange fever, ’tis because I have looked at him as I passed, and not because of a curative failure. What blame there was in this blameless world they wanted mounted. They wanted assurances: Prayers work; I am one of God’s chosen; my destiny is not Hell, but Heaven …
Yet I had spent these last eighteen years in London, and I knew … nothing was assured, and prayers were only prayers, and I knew in that moment that [they wanted me] hanged for my inability to give them relief, to provide them with solace. 
Here’s what I really liked about Susannah Morrow, and how it’s different from Redwall (aside from the obvious): even though you know how it’s going to end (Susannah gets accused of witchcraft; Salem becomes a blemish in New England’s pre-Revolution history), you find yourself still asking “What happens next? How does it happen? How does Charity resolve her issues? Does she? What happens between Lucas and Susannah? Does Susannah survive?” What Redwall didn’t have was that propulsion forward. As I said in its review: you know how it’s going to end, but there’s no wondering of the how. And that’s what keeps me reading books. Hell, even though I hated Wideacre while reading it, I still finished it, because I wanted to know what happened.
Anyway. (Drink!) I ended up liking it more than I thought I would, and if you’re interested in the Salem Witch Trials and/or historical fiction, I’d recommend it.
(If you’re interested in other forms of magic centered around Salem, read my friend’s book!)
Grade for Susannah Morrow: 3.5 stars
(PS for those keeping track – it is now 5:45 and I am DONE.)