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Customer Review

on June 27, 2004
It is hard to imagine that Prof. Norton's narrative and analysis of the Salem witch crisis will be surpassed anytime soon. This book re-examines an episode in American colonial history that many other historians have tried to tackle. What makes Norton's book special is the care with which she has combed through the primary sources and the skill with which she sifts the data in arriving at what is, for my money, the best explanation of the Massachusetts tragedy.
As Norton points out, the Salem witchcraft episode involved many more people, and was much more intense, than any other such episode in America or England. Her central explanation for Salem's "uniqueness" is that, in Massachusetts in 1692, there was a fatal concurrence of New Englanders' belief in witchery and the supernatural, renewed war against northern New England settlements by the French and the Wabanaki Indians, and a series of military disasters for Massachusetts (including the wiping out of several villages). Although, as Norton readily acknowledges, this theory was advanced by other historians in scholarly articles in the 1980s, no one had previously attempted to flesh out the theory fully and examine the entire, sad series of events in light of it.
Not only does Norton do a fantastic job as a scholar, but she also is (contrary to what some Amazon reviewers have said) quite a good writer. I only wish all scholarly works were written with Norton's careful craftsmanship and scorn for pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook. The book also includes excellent and helpful maps, appendixes, and index. It should be noted as well that Norton is amazingly generous in her acknowledgements (in her notes and elsewhere) to all the researchers and even graduate students who gave her ideas and data. She sets a fine example for other historians.
I wouldn't think that this book would be beyond the capacity of anyone with a college education. Some of the other reviews, unfortunately, show that my estimate of the reading public may be too high. I suppose that, if you just want to be titillated and not have to think too hard, there are other books you should buy. But, if you really want to understand an important and notorious series of events in American history, then this is the book to read.
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