Megan Chance makes the move from paperback historical romance to hardcover historical fiction with Susannah Morrow. Fear not, romance readers, it could have been worse. Apparently her agent wanted her to join the swelling ranks of contemporary romance novelists. That would have been a shame, because Chance has a strong, distinct but somewhat dark voice that would have been ill-suited to ditzy contemporary heroines or Navy SEAL heroes.
Instead, Chance, inspired in part by childhood favorite The Witch of Blackbird Pond, re-visits the infamous Salem Witch trials of 1692. Fifteen-year-old Charity Fowler has a guilty secret that preys upon her Puritan conscience. When her mother Judith dies in childbirth, Charity is convinced that she is partly to blame because her mother was the only other person who knew of her sin. Judithís beautiful sister, Susannah, has just arrived from England, and initially Charity welcomes her. She is heartened when Susannah takes her side against Charityís strict authoritarian father, Lucas. But Charityís admiration quickly turns to distrust and then hate as she is unable to reconcile her Auntís actions with the strict moral code she was raised with. Lonely and confused, Charity finds herself slipping into an association with a group of girls who gather together to gossip and cast love spells with the help of black slave Tituba. Harmless fun spins out of control when the girlsí boredom and sexual repression lead to bizarre behavior, which is quickly labeled demonic possession by a greedy, divisive pastor.
Susannah, with her unconventional behavior and dress, never stands a chance. Several of the girls have a grudge against her, and she is one of the first to be accused of witchcraft. Even Lucas, who has been fighting a losing battle against a strong attraction for Susannah, can only blame his human desires on possession, for what kind of godly man would he be to lust after his dead wifeís sister? Yet by confronting his feelings for Susannah and challenging his entire world view, Lucas may find his ultimate salvation - or his final downfall.
Chance expertly portrays the dangerous combination of religious oppression, political unrest and fear of Indian attack that made Salem, Massachusetts ripe for the witchcraft hysteria. In a world where everything is either Godís work or the Devilís, and a child is forbidden to grieve over a dead mother, there is little opportunity to process negative feelings and thoughts, which end up being manifested in bizarre ways. Chance never clearly reveals her opinion about whether the afflicted girls were delusional, ill or just plain lying, but that is almost irrelevant. It is more important to witness how the adults in the community react to the accusations, and how quickly reason gives way to irrational accusations.
Although Chance doesnít add much new information to this well-known episode of history, she uses a slightly unconventional narrative style, gradually shifting the novelís point of view. The first third of the novel is narrated by Charity as the unhappy, guilty teenager is overcome with conflicting emotions that lead her to join the afflicted girls. By then, her behavior has become so irrational that her narration canít continue, and her father Lucas picks up the story. Lucas Fowler is the novelís most intriguing character. At first a rigid, seemingly unemotional man, Lucas is revealed to have strong feelings that he is ashamed to express. He worries that he loves his children too much and so he withdraws from them. Similarly, he is so overwhelmed by his attraction to Susannah that he betrays her. Yet he learns to accept himself and eventually repudiates his strict Puritan upbringing. He pays a high price, but by the end this apparently weak man has become heroic.
Approximately 75 pages of the novel are told from Susannahís point of view. While this enables the reader to see first-hand the horror experienced by those accused of witchcraft, Susannah isnít as compelling as the other characters. She is a strong, rational woman in an irrational world, but sheís borders on anachronistic, and given her role as the voice of reason, thereís little room for character development.
Susannah Morrow isnít an easy book to read, but it tells a fascinating story and promises a ray of hope at its conclusion. Megan Chance has always been a talented author, but with her new publisher, I suspect she now has the opportunity to spread her wings, grow, and reach the peak of her craft.