Jennifer M. Wilson's novel approaches the horror and injustice of the Salem witch trials from a different angle than most other books on the subject. Witch dramatizes the life story of one woman who would ultimately become the first person executed in the Massachusetts witch-hunt madness.
Bishop, at the time of her death on June 10th, 1692, was a prosperous and
somewhat scandalous tavern owner. Twice-widowed and now married to a
respected sawyer, she had been accused of witchcraft the first time after the
death of her second husband, Thomas Oliver, who left behind no will to delimit
the disposition of his property. During their tempestuous marriage, the couple
was punished several times for public quarreling, and Oliver said at one point
that Bridget was "a bad wife" who "sat up all
night with the devil." Although exonerated in this first inquiry in
1690, the notoriety accompanying the accusations likely led to the later
charges and her death by hanging.
Wilson presents us with a Bridget Bishop whose mother died when Bridget was but a baby, whose father hoped to groom her for a good marriage though he would offer no dowry, who had an affair with her tutor at fourteen. Drawn after the heartbreak of an impossible dream to the austerity and high moral ground of Puritanism, she
marries, leaves for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, works in a tavern, miscarries,
and is widowed when smallpox sweeps through the area.
It is the death of her
first husband, George Wassalbe, that seems to bring out the independent spirit
and lack of concern for the opinions of others that so characterizes Bridget. She opens her home to a midwife and herbalist, an older woman who is
herself considered "different", and during their sojourn begins to brew her own
beer to sell to area taverns. She gives up this quiet existence (but not
wihthout regrets) when the unfulfilled desire for a child leads to her mostly unhappy
marriage with Thomas Oliver.
Bridget's story is as important for the backdrop it presents as it is for the telling of her
life. The harsh sterility of the Puritans in the colonies stoked a powder keg of repression lit by the anxiety of economic and political pressures. Witch hunts have become more sophisticated
since then - McCarthy went after godless Communists, not dabblers in the paranormal, for instance - but are still around
in one form or another. As long as powerful people promote a culture of fear and
dare name the bogeyman of the hour, and as long as society at large allows
itself to be sucked in by exaggerations and lies, Bridget Bishop's story will
ever be repeated, the only difference in the details. The only way we can combat such hysteria is through, as Frances Hill's A Delusion of Satan suggests, "constant reminders of common humanity."