Witchcraft and Literacy

On a rainy, humid September evening, the Somerville Public Library welcomed a group of dedicated readers for its first 2016 Somerville Reads event.

Over cookies and grapes, attendees discussed this year’s citywide book selection, The Witches, a critically-acclaimed nonfiction account of the Salem witch trials by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff.

Somerville Public Library branch manager Marita Coombs and reference librarian Rhoda Augarten coordinate the annual reading program, now in its seventh year. In addition to the book discussion, programming will include guest lectures by local historians and a movie screening of The Crucible.

“We want to promote literacy and we want to build community,” said library Director Glenn Ferdman of the program’s goals.

The official book selection committee is made up of library staff who narrow the options to a handful of titles every spring. This year, they then turned it over to the public; residents and readers voted for their favorite book on the library’s website and at physical branches. Over the years, selections have varied, from last year’s sci-fi page-turner The Martian to a nonfiction book about urban farming.

somerville reads

From left: Library staff members Rhoda Augarten, Marita Coombs and Glenn Ferdman.

At over 500 pages, The Witches is a lengthy read, but it was the overwhelming victor in public voting.

“This book is a very long book,” said Coombs. “But the circulation of it has been really high, which is really impressive. This gives us a sense of whether the program was a success or not.”

“I thought [The Witches] would lead to some good discussion, to compare it to what’s happening now in political areas, and what’s happening with how people see other people in this country,” said Augarten, who suggested the book in part because of its local ties. “I just thought it fit in well with modern times.”

Donna Wade has participated in Somerville Reads since the beginning. Her favorite books have included The Martian and The Art Forger, and while she enjoyed The Witches, she admitted it was a bit dense.

“I think I might have voted for it, but I voted more than once,” Wade laughed.

The Witches explores questions of politics, paranoia, history and community, set against a backdrop of late 17th-century Puritan Massachusetts. In 1692, adolescent girls in Salem complained of strange fits and physical symptoms; amid fear and speculation, accusations of witchcraft soon followed. Over the course of a few months, almost 20 people were hanged for charges of witchcraft, and hundreds more were imprisoned. (Two local dogs were executed as well.) The trials ended as suddenly as they began.

“Whole communities together took a startling wrong turn in 1692,” author Stacy Schiff told Scout. “There’s something in the trials for everyone … At what point do we stand up, against prevailing opinion, for what we think is right? Who finally does so? These are communal questions.”

“We, too, live in fearful, disjointed times,” Schiff added. “It’s impossible to miss the Salem echoes in our political scene today.”

The September discussion event engaged patrons who considered the witch trials’ historical context and looked for similarities to contemporary events.

The library regularly coordinates topical programming, including last year’s book discussion group on race and racism and this summer’s income inequality reading group.

Somerville students learn about the Salem witch trials in elementary school as part of the state history curriculum. Last year, Somerville High School students read Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, which is based on the witch trials, and visited Salem.

Schiff was pleased that extensive research for The Witches took her throughout Massachusetts, her native state. “Except, perhaps, for being snowed in in Worcester when the American Antiquarian Society was closed due to weather and the hotel coffee machine was on the blink,” she confessed, “due to witchcraft, I assumed.”

After Somerville Reads wraps up, Schiff recommends ‘Villens pick up Elinor Lipman’s upcoming novel On Turpentine Lane, which will be in libraries and bookstores in February and takes place in the Boston area. The Central Library’s Somerville Reads display, which includes impressively handcrafted Salem structures and gallows from popsicle sticks made by a staff member, recommends other witchy entertainment like A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness and the movie Hocus Pocus.

For more information on upcoming Somerville Reads events, including two talks by local historians and a screening of The Crucible, visit somervillepubliclibrary.org. A limited number of free passes to the Salem Witch House will be available for event attendees as supplies last.