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.
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.
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!
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.
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.