“Salem, Massachusetts is the site of the infamous witch trials and the new home of Samantha Mather. Recently transplanted from New York City, Sam and her stepmother are not exactly welcomed with open arms. Sam is the descendant of Cotton Mather, one of the men responsible for those trials and almost immediately, she becomes the enemy of a group of girls who call themselves The Descendants. And guess who their ancestors were?
If dealing with that weren’t enough, Sam also comes face to face with a real live (well technically dead) ghost. A handsome, angry ghost who wants Sam to stop touching his stuff. But soon Sam discovers she is at the center of a centuries old curse affecting anyone with ties to the trials. Sam must come to terms with the ghost and find a way to work with the Descendants to stop a deadly cycle that has been going on since the first accused witch was hanged. If any town should have learned its lesson, it’s Salem. But history may be about to repeat itself.”
My Thoughts: How to Hang a Witch is a smart look at the history of the Salem witch hysteria, its origins, and its aftermath in the guise of a YA thriller set in the modern era. It might sound like an odd premise, but it works really well. Ms. Mather does an excellent job fairly presenting both sides while touching on many of the mass hysteria’s causes and effects. She never diminishes what occurred, and by setting her story in Salem, she shows its lasting aftermath.
One of the more fascinating aspects of How to Hang a Witch is the fact that Ms. Mather is herself a direct descendant of Cotton Mather, much like her fictional counterpart Sam is. This gives her story a legitimacy that one might not realize is important to a work of fiction but ends up making all the difference. For instance, one can envision that much of what Sam faces upon her entrance into Salem’s social world is based on Ms. Mather’s real-life experiences. The antipathy generated by the Mather last name seems farfetched because it feels impossible that a town would hold a grudge for 200 years. However, because of Ms. Mather’s own history, it suddenly seems quite probable. After all, Salem is a town that never really recovered from the trauma of the witch trials so long ago even if they have found ways to hide their hurts.
Sam is a likable heroine, missing much of the angst that is so typical of young adult novels. She makes plenty of mistakes one can attribute to her youth, but she has a backbone that is refreshing to see and makes her a strong role model. She proves a formidable opponent to the Descendants, not backing down from their bullying. More importantly, she proves willing to befriend the very same girls who are dead set on making her life miserable. Her ability to rise above the petty machinations of high school is what really sets Sam apart from other young adult heroines.
The story itself is a fascinating modern-day retelling of the Salem witch trials without getting too kitschy or heavy-handed in the allegorical elements. Ms. Mather treats those long-ago events with care, not trivializing the damage wrought to the families or the town itself nor glossing over the more gruesome details. She may simplify some of the reasons for the trials but admits in her author’s note that she does so because the reasons are too complex to detail in a novel for young adults. Sam is a worthy heroine and handles the discrimination and odd happenings with aplomb. How to Hang a Witch is a novel I raced to finish and immediately gave it to my daughter to read. It is one of the more enjoyable YA novels I have read in a while, and I recommend it to anyone fascinated by the Salem witch trials.