Sunday, May 13, 2012

[Puritan] Girls Just Wanna Have Fun...a review of WICKED GIRLS by Stephanie Hemphill

Some people say it was Chaucer, but I tend to think it might have been a Puritan mother who said, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Or something like that.  On Mother’s Day, it’s fitting to say that mothers like to keep their girls out of trouble.  Puritan girls were supposed to be industrious, virtuous and meek.   That’s why they embroidered all those samplers.  So, what happened to the girls who bore false witness in the Salem Witch Trials?  Perhaps the obvious fall from grace, the one rare glimpse into the depraved human condition that the story of the trials gives us, is what fascinates us with this bit of early American history.  Mercy Lewis, Margaret Walcott, and Ann Putnam, Jr., started a nearly 2 year persecution of their neighbors which ended only after 19 people were hanged, 1 man pressed to death, 3 women and several infants died in jail, and more than 144 people had legal action brought against them (402).

Wicked Girls: a Novel of the Salem Witch Trials by Stephanie Hemphill

I raved about Hemphill’s verse novel Your Own, Sylvia, in a previous post, so I was excited to read Wicked Girls.  Can I just save you the suspense and tell you straight up that I didn’t like this book.  Sorry, but it bored me.  The story lines were contrived.  The characters too stiff and unappealing.  They weren’t sympathetic.  Sure, there was abuse, jealousy, teenage passion—but none of it was enough to make me want to read this story.  Maybe it’s because I’ve read The Crucible too many times.  Or maybe I’d rather watch Gossip Girl.  I don’t know. 

Hemphill’s poetry is pretty in places.  The first poem, “Salem, January 1692,” is a good example: 
            Silent, not even the twitter/
            of insects.  The wind stills/
            against a distant sky of clouds./
            The cold is gray and fierce,/
            bitter as a widow at the grave.

But even that doesn’t save her this time.   The diction that has to carry the plot is stilted.  Perhaps it’s how Hemphill imagines Puritans talked, but it sounds fake.  “Where be the little ones?”  “I made biscuits this morn.”  I just couldn’t get through it.  It read like an amateur script.

Still, there might be a young adult who has a particular interest in Salem, Pilgrims, or Cotton Mather, who will find this book appealing.  Hemphill has done plenty of research, and the end notes are interesting.  In the Author’s Note, Hemphill explains exactly what she set about to do with her characterizations, “to explain the group dynamics within the larger community…and within the girl clique itself” (403).  I just hope the tragedy of innocent people being put to death isn’t trivialized in Hemphill’s attempt to make the girls’ possible motives more relatable to a modern audience.  For me, it was a nice try, but it wasn’t enough. 

Awards and Reviews (selected)
School Library Journal Best Books, 2010
Los Angeles Times Book Prize, 2010 Finalist Young Adult Literature

“Once again, Hemphill’s raw, intimate poetry probes behind the abstract facts and creates characters that pulse with complex emotion. …An excellent supplementary choice for curricular studies of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, this will also find readers outside the classroom, who will savor the accessible, unsettling, piercing lines that connect past and present with timeless conflicts and truths.”—Gillian Engberg, Booklist, June 1, 2010

“This carefully researched and beautifully written poetic novel infuses new life and relevance into a dark episode in our history. Each character is limned in a distinctive voice and personality, and the girls’ thoughts and words reveal the pressures that drive them. Their harsh lives contrast with the still-unspoiled loveliness of the early New England setting. Told with a piercing intensity and exquisite sensory detail, this story will haunt the reader long after the book is laid aside.”—Marla K. Unruh, VOYA, October 2010

Vital Stats
Hemphill, Stephanie (2010). Wicked Girls: a Novel of the Salem Witch Trials.  New York: Balzer + Bray.  ISBN 9780061853296. 

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