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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wicked Girls, written by Stephanie Hemphill. Harper, 2010. $18.99 ages 12 and up

"Cider flows inside the tavern,
for Ingersoll's serves
a hearty stew
of witch fever.
All who enter and imbibe
do lick their lips for more.
Sure as meat makes a pie,
the villagers be certain
that Satan is among them.
The brisk spoons of girls
ladle fear
into everyone's bowls."

This fictionalized novel in verse is based on research done about the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, and is told in the voices of three girls who were living there at the time. Mercy Lewis is a beautiful servant in the Putnam household, hired to care for the family and admired by Ann. Ann Putnam Jr. is the daughter of the house, wanting power at a time when women were completely powerless. Margaret Walcott is Ann's cousin, jealous of Mercy's beauty and charm, intensely in love with Isaac and longing to be married.

A suggestion by Ann's father that the illnesses plaguing the village may stem from witchcraft opens the door for Ann to be noticed. She begins showing signs of affliction and convinces Mercy and Margaret that they should do the same. In showing them how to take power, Ann becomes the ringleader. Mercy knows that her safety is dependent upon following Ann's example. Margaret wants to be noticed by Isaac and thus, joins them.  They accuse men and women in their community. The accused are tried, and sentenced to death by hanging or even more gruesome:

"If you do not enter a plea,
that by God and your country
ye are either guilty or innocent,
ye shall be given peine forte et dure."

Watching as those they have accused are put to death, the girls begin to see what they have done. Should they tell the truth? What started as a game to get capture the attention of their community has become a witch hunt. What will they do now?

"Cold restores order.
Shrill winds muffle
screaming, and the trees twist
more deviant arms and legs
than Affliction.

The witch hunt is snuffed.
The accusers slip
under the silent ice
of indifference."

This is an outstanding example of historical fiction. The characters are real people, distinct and memorable.
The demanding research results in eloquent voices from the past, enduring visions of the people and their time, and a noteworthy example of the best in literature for young people. Well done, Stephanie Hemphill!

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