Bewitched Girls and Seafaring Boys

These days I don’t have much time to read fiction in general, and I tend to avoid novels set in Salem in particular, but I’m always on the lookout for later nineteenth and early twentieth-century novels with alluring covers as part of my ever-increasing, very random Salem collection of material objects. My interest is more cultural than literary, and two trends are immediately apparent when you examine a range of Salem titles dating from the first half of the twentieth century: the girls are somehow entangled in the Witch Trials, and the boys are off to sea. I can’t imagine a more distinct gender division–and while the accused/entrapped/bewitched girls continue into the later twentieth century and later, the seafaring boys disappear. Here we have a YA literary illustration of the rise and dominance of Witch City. I think it all starts with the 1842 publication of Ebeneezer Wheelwright’s The Salem Belle: A Tale of 1692, which has recently been revisited, reissued and revealed: as source material for Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. 

Salem fiction collage

And after Salem Belle: Ye Lyttle Salem Maid: a Story of Witchcraft (1898) by Pauline Bradford Mackie, Lucy Foster Madison’s Maid of Salem Town (1906), Dulcibel by Henry Peterson (1907), and Frederick Sterling’s A Fair Witch (1911), and others—most were popular and reprinted continuously in the first decades of the nineteenth century. This is a 1934 edition which illustrates the type of covers I crave almost perfectly.

Fictional Salem Maid of Salem Towne

One novel from this era that doesn’t quite fit into the endangered-Salem-maid category is Esther Forbes’ Mirror for Witches, which was first published in 1928 and was seldom out of print for the rest of the century. With its provocative woodcut illustrations by Robert Gibbings and its seventeenth-century “voice” (of a girl who witnessed her parents’ burning for witchcraft before she came to Salem), this tale is pretty graphic in more ways than one: the New York Times assessed it as a “strange, eerie book” and a “unique achievement”. It’s hard to believe that Forbes was also the author of Johnny Tremaine!

Mirror collage

Salem Fiction Mirror for Witches 1928

Plots get lot more modernly romantic as the twentieth century progresses, of course, resulting in novels like Mildred Reid’s The Devil’s Handmaidens (1951), in which Puritan maiden Hope Farrell is betrothed to a wealthy Salem magistrate when the object of her affection, handsome young sailor Dan Marston, is captured by slave traders on one of his annual voyages. When he returns eventually, she confesses her love for him but maintains that “a Godly maiden does not break a troth”, and heartbroken Dan yields to the wanton wiles of a certain Submit Tibby (I kid you not). Meanwhile, all hell breaks loose when the Salem Village girls start their fits, and Hope’s own mother is drawn into their net. It’s all there on the cover, how could I resist it? A least we have a little maritime history here. A romantic rivalry also fuels the plot of John Jenning’s The Salem Frigate (1946) which moves the setting up to the Salem’s golden age. The covers below (hardcover and paperback) are a little deceiving: we’re in the realm of men now.

Salem Fiction Devils

Salem Frigate collage

The realm of men (or boys) generally necessitates a wartime setting for Salem novels: the Salem Frigate was set primarily during the War of 1812, and a series of adventurous Salem boys books from earlier in the century featured the American Revolution: The Armed Ship America; or When we Sailed from Salem (1900) was part of James Otis’s Boy’s Own Series, A Patriot Lad of Old Salem (1925) was one volume in a series of Patriot Lads books written by Russell Gordon Carter. Mildred Flagg’s A Boy of Salem (1939), a companion to the author’s Plymouth Maid, is set in the time of seventeenth-century settlement, not that of the later trials. All these Salem boys have a great deal of freedom of mobility: they face the frontier and trials which are largely self-imposed, in stark contrast to those of their fictional female counterparts who were confined to the suffocating world of Salem, 1692.

boys fiction collage


9 responses to “Bewitched Girls and Seafaring Boys

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Again you peak my interest with your review of Salem-related tales with the “distinct gender division” between girls stuck in Salem and boys off to sea. I taught JOHNNY TREMAIN for many years and find it hard to believe that Forbes also wrote MIRROR FOR WITCHES.

    My other favorite by Forbes is PAUL REVERE AND THE WORLD HE LIVED IN for which she received the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1943. As the story goes, Esther had to almost break down the doors of the Massachusetts Historical Society to do her research for that one. She was much better received at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester where she lived. I know you often reference their archives.

    Also contributing to the “boys at sea” theme were some works by Lynn attorney (and Lynnfield summer resident ) Charles F. Haywood who banged out NO SHIP MAY SAIL and EASTWARD THE SEA set out of Marblehead/Salem area.

    Good work …

    Liked by 1 person

  • Susie

    These book covers are so great!

    Like

  • Laura L Graham

    Much appreciate that review of seasonal book titles and themes. I’m tempted to hunt up a used copy of Mirror for Witches, but I still have my Melmoth the Wanderer to get me in the mood 🙂

    Like

  • tomP

    Donna – you changed your blog’s header image! What happened to Kevin Stirnweis??????

    Like

  • Brian Bixby

    H.P. Lovecraft almost managed these story lines together in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (1927), which does feature a sea-going man, a love triangle, and witchcraft; but Lovecraft rarely wrote strong female characters, so the “witch” in this case is a sorcerer who marries the seaman’s sweetheart. Curiously, although set in Providence, R.I., the story was transplanted to Lovecraft’s fictional version of Salem, Arkham, when it was made into a movie, “The Haunted Palace” in 1963. But don’t expect anything resembling actual Salem in it. From your perspective, doing a web search for the different versions of the movie poster might be interesting, to see how a cheesy horror flick was marketed in 1963, how that changed abroad, and changed again for DVD repackaging, etc.

    Like

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