'The truth is, I'm not sure when it started. I don't actually think anybody really knows.'
'Colleen is feeling the heat. It's her final year of school, and university applications and deciphering boys' texts have turned life into a pressure cooker. Colleen and her friends are expected to somehow keep it all together - until they can't.
The first victim ist gorgeous, popular Clara who starts having loud and uncontrollable tics while her horrified classmates look on. More students follow suit with new symptoms: seizures, body vibrations, violent coughing fits, and hair loss. The media descends as school officials, angry parents and health experts scramble to find something, or someone, to blame. But there is one thing no one has factored in: the school's town was once Salem Village, the site of a similarly bizarre epidemic among teenage girls three hundred years earlier - and it seems history is about to repeat itself.' (blurp)
The story consists of three different narratives: First, there are the happenings at Colleen's elite private school St. Joan's in Danvers, Massachusetts in 2012 concerning the Mystery Illness, which are presented from her point of view. Secondly, there is Ann Putnam, talking about herself experiencing the Salem witchcraft trials as a young girl in 1692 and, thirdly, confessing about the terrible role she played in them to the town minister Reverend Green 14 years later.
The events taking place in Salem in 1692 are also subject of Arthur Miller's famous play 'The Crucible', which Colleen studies with her History class. I also read this play last year with my English advanced class and came across an excerpt of this book, it being a part of the A-Levels.
Yet there are even more links between Colleen's and Ann's experiences at the two different points of time in history as in both cases hysteria unfolds about a number of girls suffering from strange symptoms for which no natural explanation can be found initially. I liked how the author sometimes made a few tiny details the same for Colleen and Ann, like both of them having the same drink.
Most of the characters I found rather likeable and well distinguishable from the start. Colleen as the protagonist maybe comes across a little egoistic as she seems to care most about her grades and college applications instead of her friends. However, I liked that she stayed calm while many of her classmates fell sick to the Mystery Illness and more and more reporters started to besiege the school as the matter received great coverage through the media. Throughout the book I was curious to find out the cause of the Mystery Illness, in the end the solution was convincing though somewhat shocking. It's obvious that Colleen is under a lot of stress and doesn't find enough time at all for the things she'd rather like to do.
I really liked the connection that the author made between the Salem witch trials and the Danvers Mystery Illness, which is also based on true events, that is to say the Le Roy Mystery Illness, which Howe shortly explains in an Author's Note at the end of the book. About the events taking place in Salem in 1692 I already knew from reading 'The Crucible', still it was interesting to read about them again as depicted by a different author, thereby learning which details in Miller's play weren't accurate according to history. Again it was horrifying how the group of teenage girls around Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam didn't hesitate to condemn 19 innocent people to death by pretending to be bewitched by them, only for the sake of being in the centre of everyone's attention. Then (as with many other things, too I guess) one might think that something like that wouldn't happen again nowadays, but it did. However, the two occurrences aren't 100% comparable as the girls in Danvers/ Le Roy really suffered from physical symptoms whereas the ones from Salem were just faking.
Katherine Howe, author of 'The Lost Book of Salem' and 'The House of Velvet and Glass', was born in 1977 and is a lecturer in American Studies at Cornell University as well as a direct descendant of three of the women accused of being witches at the Salem witchcraft trials.
In sum, I recommend this book to everyone who enjoyed 'The Crucible' or is generally interested in the topics of witchcraft trials and mass hysteria. It was both interesting and unsettling to read how something similar can still happen today.
'I feel it. We've begun to believe. We've been performing so well, we're fooling ourselves. We've been pulled into our own play.'