Review published on November 14, 2016.
Crane Pond is a novel about the Salem witch trials. I suspect that, like many people, my introduction to Salem was Henry Miller’s play The Crucible (1953). Miller used Salem as an allegory for McCarthyism, illustrating how deeply these events during the birth of modern America resonate down the centuries. So Crane Pond is tackling an important piece of the American story.
The trials, which spread throughout the new colony, resulted in the execution of twenty people. Five more died in prison before a halt was finally called to the ‘inquisition’ and the remaining victims were released. Arthur Miller described Salem as one of the ‘strangest and most awful chapters in human history’.
The central character in Crane Pond is Judge Samuel Sewell and the book spans the last decade of the seventeenth century, prefacing, encompassing and following the witch trials at which Sewell was one of the presiding judges. He was the only man involved to admit to having made a terrible mistake, giving him a unique place in history and attracting Richard Francis to his story.
Clearly this portrait of Sewell is a labour of love for Francis, but it is also a very balanced view of a man in trying times, ‘warts and all’. Francis has previously produced a biography of Sewell, Judge Sewell’s Apology (2005), and obviously felt he was not finished with his subject, believing that fiction enabled him to better imagine the inner life of the judge (thoughts and feelings).
Sewell is a man at odds with his contemporaries; men like Cotton Mather, who never repented their actions. He is plausibly drawn and human, very real, mildly heroic and essentially honest. A man struggling with dark times and inner demons.
From the first chapter, portraying a family breakfast, Francis sets the tone of this world. A child’s nightmare prefaces the terror to come. The religious context is defined and crucially events assume a life of their own, which Sewell and his contemporaries cannot/will not control. This world, so different from the modern world, is populated by powerful well-educated men and ordinary folk, but they share a common set of beliefs. Normal events are seen as portents, as having meaning (a dead child is a punishment for sin and a failed crop must have happened for a reason). It is a ‘new’ world, inchoate, a harsh world where children often die young and where the devil is as real as anything in people’s lives. A world ruled by religious/political idealism and vicious pragmatism.
At the heart of the novel Francis is addressing questions of how a good man, a good citizen, can become embroiled in such horrific events and in the case of Sewell eventually make atonement.
The Salem witch trials are the first example of mass hysteria in American culture. The children infect people’s fears, feeding their hatred and making everyone suspicious of each other, with terrible consequences and even though this isn’t the focus of the book, it is adequately represented by Francis.
Sewell, as a character, is treated with respect and Francis avoids any post-dated moralisation of his role in the events. Through the people of the time, Francis lets the story tell itself, allowing the reader to make judgements for themselves. Crane Pond benefits from a cool, calm style (no fireworks), allowing the time and place to speak to the reader and hopefully avoid any leaden hindsight.
To make Judge Sewell the central protagonist adds an interesting new dimension to a story often told from the victims’ point of view. Crane Pond is a success in transporting the reader to an earlier age and adding to the understanding of the times. Although this is one man’s view of Sewell’s inner life, it rings true and I think it adds to the understanding that a pure biography can bring.
If I have one caveat it is that his novel is better read with some prior knowledge of the events of 1692/3 in the new colony, since it naturally skirts some events in delivering Sewell’s narrative and inevitably, as some of the story unfolds off page, some background knowledge is useful. Yet, I think this is the kind of novel that will attract a ready/prepared readership.
I would suggest this book would appeal to lovers of intelligent, thoughtful historical fiction. It is similar in intent to the works of Hilary Mantel and Robert Harris in that brings real history to life through fiction.
Paul Burke 4/3
Crane Pond by Richard Francis
Europa Editions 9781609453510 pbk Oct 2016