Hill injects the factual account of the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692 with the hubris of Puritan ministers and community leaders and the hysterical projections of young girls who stumble on their power to influence authority with accusations of witchcraft. What begins as a mischievous experiment by two rebellious little girls grows monstrous when fueled by the ambitions of greedy men who sense opportunity to profit from the disgrace of others.
The result is chilling: an inexorable march toward the gallows. Reason has fled, the fear-infused mob mentality victorious over logic and the rule of law. While the important men of Salem consider the personal profit to be culled from a superstition-fed conflagration, George Burroughs ministers quietly in Maine, bravely rebuffing Indian attacks, oblivious to the ill-will of those in Salem who still harbor resentments toward him. But by the end of the trials, Burroughs will stand among the convicted, named leader of Satan’s minions and a direct threat to the Salem community.
Hill reconstructs the early days, as hysteria spreads from one girl to another, their families in thrall to the thrashing and screaming that accelerates with each addition to the group. Supposedly tortured by the devil, the girls feel compelled to name the instruments of their continuing torment. Abigail Williams and Betty Parris point to the dark-skinned Parris family servant, Tituba, the first to fall. The list of the accused grows, from random neighbors to women of good reputation like the saintly Rebecca Nurse and Elizabeth Proctor, influential men coordinating an assault that will enrich them with land as well as the esteem of the community.
Notable personages emerge - Increase and Cotton Mather, Samuel Parris, Rev. John Hart, each tainted with the egregiousness of their fanatical participation in the death of innocents in the name of God. Every time this story is told, the depth of the tragedy is unavoidable, the rush of unchecked power in the hands of intemperate men, the unseemly abandon of screaming girls in court, the accused manacled in crowded, filthy warehouses awaiting judgment and the long fingers of revenge that reach into Maine to deliver Burroughs to his enemies.
The landscape changes from the trampled snow of winter to the oppressive humidity of summer, but the façade of righteousness never falters, even when the rights of a helpless old woman, innocent farmers and the generally disliked are trampled by a crowd cowed by the authority of their leaders, a grim reminder of how easily a willing population can be seduced by savvy opportunists who prey on fear and craven instincts.
Ironically, “Deliverance” alludes to the Puritans’ safe arrival from England, free from persecution. How quickly the demons take root in their new community, needs made more savage and consequential by the dangers of the frontier environment. Mendacity respects no borders, hidden in the dark recesses of the human heart, belied by a smile and a sermon.