I picked up Katherine Howe’s novel Conversion on something of a whim, mostly because whatever I had read about described its link to the Salem Witch Trials and Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. Both are topics/texts that are frequently studied in high schools, so I figured this book might provide some nice connections in the context of young adult readers. I was surprised at how engaged I became in the story and the characters.
Conversion is really two stories in one: The main story is told through Colleen Rowley’s eyes while a secondary story reveals the truth behind the witch scare in Salem, Massachusetts in in 1600’s. Colleen lives in Danvers, MA (the town formerly known as Salem Village–renamed for obvious reasons, I guess) where she attends an elite private all-girls school; the focus of the story is on an unidentified “illness” that strikes the school, beginning with a few girls and slowly infecting more and more of the school’s population. Interspersed with chapters about the mysterious illness are chapters that take place in Salem Village, told from the perspective of Ann Putnam, where she confesses the true events and motives at work in the girls who were the center of the original Salem witch scare.
Howe wants to draw obvious connections between the two events, and while I found both stories interesting, I think Colleen’s story is most interesting for how Howe characterizes the way a modern society (complete with very privileged families and entitled parents as well as teens) would react to something akin to the mysterious afflictions in 17th century Salem. Howe also suggests some interesting insights into the original Salem story, speculating about what might lie at the root of the mysterious afflictions–although I think she’s imposed very modern sensibilities on the girls involved (not that this is wrong, just that I’m not sure how “accurate” it might be, although that’s not admittedly what Howe is probably going for). I was also pleased that Howe doesn’t try to force both stories to converge in any way, except for the similarities between the fact that young girls are afflicted mysteriously in both time settings. Her solution to the modern afflictions is delightfully ambiguous I think (especially in the inevitable connections to witchcraft that the setting and events of the two stories will evoke).
Finally, considering this book with The Crucible would make for some interesting connections. In the case of both Miller’s work and Howe’s, they each repurpose the legend of the events in Salem with distinctly contemporary purposes and influences. Miller’s work evokes the consequences of succumbing to fear that he saw around him during the McCarthy era; Howe examines the complexities of the lives that teenage girls live today, especially those nearing high school graduation and the threshold to adulthood. While I had good experiences in the high school classroom with The Crucible, I think Howe’s work is more immediately accessible for teens (even though it’s ostensibly written for adults) and brings the fears, prejudices, and mystery of the events in Salem into the modern world in a convincing and thought-provoking way.