Thursday, November 6, 2014

Lies in the Dust: A Tale of Remorse from the Salem Witch Trials

One of the standard stories of American history taught in every single elementary school since time began is the Salem Witch Trials. Right up there with the American Revolution and arrival of the Pilgrims, the trials are a quintessential part of our national identity.

Their story is also the first mean girls story ever written.

As we all know, in 1692 and 1693 a small group of girls pointed the finger at several of the residents of Salem, Massachusetts and declared them witches. A fever soon gripped the community whereby the girls would claim they were being made ill or manipulated by someone, the person would claim innocence and be subjected to all manner of impossible physical tests to prove that innocence and then the accused was executed and everybody moved on to the next victim.

It all stopped when the crazy just got out of hand and way too many people were being accused (including folks of increasingly powerful positions), but by then twenty people were put to death, four others died in prison and many other lives were ruined. And then a couple of years later, the voices of reason felt confident enough to come forward and by 1700 the first of many petitions were being filed demanding that the convictions be reversed.

The big question though, is what happened to the accusers and that is where Jakob Crain and Tim Decker's graphic novel, Lies in the Dust, offers some answers.
In 1706, Ann Putnam Jr., one of original group of accusing girls, issued a formal apology for her role in the trials. She was the only one of the girls to do so. She had remained in Salem and after the death of her parents in 1699, taken custody of her nine younger siblings (7 months to 18 years). It is her story that Crain and Decker tell.

Through chapter breaks, the narrative moves back and forth in time showing readers what happened during the trials and then later how Ann tried to explain her remorse to her siblings and apologized. A couple of the more famous trials are covered including Rebecca Nurse and the farmer Giles Cory who was slowly crushed to death under heavy rocks. Ann also recounts how she and her friends listened to tales from the servant Tituba and developed fanciful stories of their own which spawned the first accusations. All of this is true and based on historic accounts from the trials.

The role of Ann's parents plays a big part in Lies in the Dust as well, which follows what historians believe likely occurred. Several of the accused had business relationships with the Putnams and it is not believed that they were casual targets of Ann and her friends. The girls might have been persuaded in the choice of their victims, especially Ann, by adults. This is not something typically discussed when teaching the trials so delving into Ann's motivations and the pressures she might have been under as a child would certainly be interesting for readers.

Tim Decker's spare pen and ink drawings set the perfect mood for Crain's story, giving Ann's face in particular an air of sorrow that conveys emotion as strongly as the written words. The combination of the story and art, is really pitch perfect here and coupled with the subject matter makes for a very sad, very serious reading experience which is really what the Salem Witch Trials should be.

Lies in the Dust is thoughtful, considerate historical fiction, a graphic novel that tells a deeply moving story about the devastating impact a few can have on the lives of many. Crain and Decker effectively show that with thoughtless acts and words even young people can tear apart the world.

As it turns out, Salem was about fear and cruelty and greed and, in retrospect, very little about witches.

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