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Review: Crane Pond, by Richard Francis
Europa, 2016. 348 pp. $18

This spare, beautiful novel retells a story at once familiar yet full of surprises, that of the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Samuel Sewall, a Boston merchant and a man widely respected, tells how those infamous proceedings occurred; how he became one of the presiding judges; what he was thinking during the testimony and deliberations; what the community thought of them (and him); and how he felt afterward. That premise is itself a bold undertaking, because it implies creating sympathy for a judicial murderer who thought a witch hunt was the right idea.

Unattributed illustration from 1876 depicting the Salem trials (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Unattributed illustration from 1876 depicting the Salem trials (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

 

But Francis goes one better. Not only does he show Sewall at his worst and compel you to consider his protagonist fairly, he begins the narrative years before the Salem trials. There’s no prologue, no portents, no gimmick to placate a reader who might become antsy during such a lengthy backstory. Francis wants you to understand the political, religious, and emotional reasons an honest man like Sewall winds up participating in and endorsing procedures that are flagrantly dishonest. Yet despite what might seem a digression, the tension never flags. Why not?

I think it’s because Francis has entered Sewall’s everyday life, beliefs, and psyche so thoroughly that I can’t help being drawn in. Sewall’s a man who constantly wrestles with his faith. “Trouble and disgrace can come from any source; the world is composed of little things as well as great ones,” he observes. Every conversational misunderstanding, fib, nightmare, unguarded impulse, or declaration of spiritual terror from any of his beloved children sets him off on a soul-searching expedition that will inevitably lead to prayer on bruised knees. Even the bruises prompt reflection:

Would the use of a cushion to ease the discomfort be a popish luxury or simply a practical way of prolonging his devotions?
Also he thinks of his dear wife Hannah, who is somehow able to be both good and sensible at the same time, which ought to be possible for all of us, since God has not sown discord and contradiction in the world–those elements have been placed there by His enemy.

That enemy, Sewall believes, runs rife in his community, as in others everywhere. Massachusetts Bay Colony, though held to be blessed by God, may well have lost its way and fallen under the Devil’s influence. And since Sewall feels himself capable of temptation, whether by lustful impulses toward his pretty sister-in-law or the desire to please men in power, he’s not in the least self-righteous, whereas his judicial colleagues clearly are. Moreover, he’s convinced that the impieties he perceives in himself have brought God’s wrath, which explains, for example, why several of his children have been stillborn. Notice that he never blames Hannah. Rather, he’s quick to tell his wife and children that they have nothing to be afraid of before God, while he spends sleepless nights worrying about his soul.

Consequently, well before the witchcraft trials begin, you know that Sewall does nothing lightly, and that he’s trying his best to do right–if he can only figure out what it is. But aberrations like the witch hunts don’t spring out of nowhere, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the purge takes on a life of its own, and who’s the driving force. That doesn’t excuse what happens, only to illuminate it. And what a horrifying story it is, told so brilliantly that even though you know how it must end, you keep hoping that someone will have the sense to say, What nonsense.

But as the judges hunt down any who object and twist themselves into knots attempting to justify the course they’ve chosen, they silence any voice of reason. Crane Pond thus captures the smug, hypocritical rigidity of fundamentalism at its deadliest, and in that, the novel could not be more timely. With extreme religious factions exerting their muscle in our nation and around the globe, daring to think for oneself or hold a healthy skepticism can be a called a crime, even to deserve a capital penalty.

Like Mary Doria Russell’s Doc, Crane Pond springs from careful research; Francis has written a biography of Sewall, so he knows his ground. But, as I wrote about Doc, it’s one thing to go to the library, and another to weave fact into sturdy fictional fabric. Like Russell, Francis does so with utter confidence, because’s he’s imagined what his characters would say or do in any situation, and, most importantly, why. What’s more, he’s kept his prose style muted and plain, like the churches in which they pray, yet the words spring vividly to life, proving that a gifted author need not display verbal pyrotechnics to create a luminous work of literary fiction.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.