Richard Francis’s new novel covers ostensibly familiar ground. Set in and around Boston in the 1690s, it tells the story of the Salem trials, which resulted in the execution of 20 people (14 of them women), and which are sometimes regarded as a hinge event in the evolution of American secularism. As the historian George Lincoln Burr put it in 1914:
‘Salem witchcraft was the rock on which the theocracy shattered.’
This seismic moment was last visited by Francis in his 2005 biography of Samuel Sewall, the judge who presided over the trials. And it is to Sewall’s life that Francis returns in Crane Pond. He opens his story in January 1690, at which time Sewall is engaged in trying a handful of men for piracy. The men are destined to be hanged — until a gathering of Sewall’s contemporaries, for reasons of expedience and personal attachment, persuade him to offer them a reprieve.
Sewall — a kindly and thoughtful 38-year-old— fears the consequences of this instance of weakness. When news arrives that occurrences that sound alarmingly close to acts of witchcraft are taking place in the nearby town of Salem, he worries that his moral infirmity is the cause.
While in the throes of this unrest, Sewall is conscripted to serve on the assembly of judges that will try those inhabitants of Salem who have been identified as witches. Arraignments take place, accusations of witchcraft proliferate and hangings are ordered. In this atmosphere of terror, the local citizens begin to turn against the figures who are judging their neighbours, and who might soon, they sense, judge them.
As this hostility intensifies, Francis grants us a view of the inner life of Sewall as he wrestles with his faith, suspects his motives, questions his rectitude and reflects on the nature of what it means to live a moral life. The man he reveals is fully-faceted, vivid and memorable. Francis attends to his emotional and intellectual agitation with care and imagination, and animates them, together with those parts of the book that deal with the ‘external’ story of Salem, in prose that is (usually) carefully modulated and imbued with a subtle comic spirit.
There are infelicities. Francis has a weakness for hackneyed phrases (some of which are out of place in the 17th century), and his dialogue can be leaden. But, overall, this is an entertaining and stimulating novel, richly peopled, that brings Salem, and the forms of belief that gave rise to it, to life with freshness, energy, intelligence — and with terrible and arresting proximity.