By Ron Charles
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; C04
By Susan Fletcher
Norton. 366 pp. $24.95
Like Christine O'Donnell, none of the 20 people executed during Salem's infamous spasm of paranoia was a witch. Historians have offered a thick brew of competing explanations for what went wrong in that prosperous seaport around 1692. Belief in witchcraft was waning but still widespread, even among leading scientists (wander beyond Isaac Newton's writings on gravity, and the man sounds like a loon). Still, what struck the match that burned through Salem and those surrounding towns? Was it displaced fear of Indian attack? Or the rising tension between the town and the village? Or a hallucinogenic mold that infected their rye?
To my mind, feminist historians have provided the most useful analysis of the witchcraft hysteria that raged across the early modern period. These scholars point to a pattern of misogynistic accusations that clung to the trials like warts on a toad. Women who possessed unusual knowledge (of herbal cures, for instance), women who had sharp tongues, women who expressed their sexuality outside the bounds of traditional roles -- in other words, the same kinds of bold females who continue to unnerve us today -- risked being accused. True, we're not collecting dry sticks in the town square anymore, but as Meg Whitman learned earlier this month, powerful women still get burned with old w-word curses.
The injustice of such hate-fraught labels and the burden they impose are the themes of Susan Fletcher's third novel, a stirring historical romance coming next month called "Corrag," which is a finalist for next month's Rhys Prize for young writers. In 1692, the same year our sophisticated New England ancestors were busy hanging each other on spectral evidence, a more violent, government-sanctioned massacre took place in Glencoe, in the Highlands of Scotland. This tragedy and its murky political context won't be familiar to many Americans, but Fletcher fills in the details gracefully as she tells the story of a strange young woman caught up in the bloodshed.
Although she presumes too much on her readers' patience, Fletcher, who won the Whitbread Award for her first novel, "Eve Green," can be an alluring and poetic writer. The first chapter opens in a fetid Scottish prison where young Corrag crouches in chains preparing to be burned at the stake. Horrible as that prospect seems, it doesn't surprise her too much. After all, her grandmother was drowned as a witch, her mother was hanged as one, and the labels "hag," "Devil's whore" and "witch" have slapped Corrag since she was a little girl.
The story of how she arrived at her death sentence spools out as a prison testimony delivered over many days to Charles Leslie, a Catholic follower of exiled King James. Leslie suspects that William of Orange was involved somehow in the Glencoe massacre, and he's traveled to Scotland to investigate the crime -- and use it, he hopes, to discredit the Protestant government. Corrag, the vile, birdlike creature accused of witchcraft, appears to be the only witness, and so he swallows his revulsion -- "Any word, even a witch's, is a better word than none" -- and agrees to hear the entire story of her life to learn its shocking final episode.
The novel alternates between Corrag's tale and Leslie's devout letters to his wife about what he's hearing. I wasn't initially convinced that we needed his prissy updates, particularly when he had little to do but repeat what Corrag had just described or -- worse -- when he fell into the role of the novel's internal publicist, telling his wife how fantastic Corrag's story is, what a bewitching narrator she is, how effectively she brings the land alive. That's all true, but I kept muttering, "Show, don't sell." Nevertheless, he eventually won me over, and despite his buckle shoes, he becomes an interesting character in his own right, with passions just as strong and ennobling as Corrag's.
But clearly, the story belongs to her. Pushed out into the forest at 15 to avoid her mother's fate, Corrag begins her "galloping life" living off the land and falling in with the rough folk who are already fading into the mist of legend. She's a lover of all living things and a walking natural pharmacy, which comes in handy when she needs to prove her worth among lawless bands. We know where Corrag's tale is headed, but as Charles Leslie notes, "Her talking is like a river -- running on and bursting into smaller rivers."
I like my late 17th-century characters to sound a bit more antique, a little more removed from the colloquial patter of modern English. And a few too many New Age affirmations -- "The truest magick in this world is in us" -- sit like little globules of fat on the poetry of Corrag's narration. But she's got a great set of lungs for the kind of romantic incantations we don't hear much anymore outside of beer commercials: "I wanted blowing skies. To be where wolves still called," she says. "Where the people are wild, and the trees are wind-buckled, and there are lochs which mirror the sky. Where men live crouching down, waiting. Where I might live as I am." If this doesn't make you want to rip off your shirt and run out onto the dew-covered glen, move along to one of those many novels about middle-aged New Yorkers sighing over bad brie.
What's surprising is how puritanical this story remains even after Fletcher's young heroine makes contact with the doomed MacDonalds in Glencoe. Corrag arrives gowned in spider webs and twigs, and the sparks between her and Alasdair, the chief's son, could set the fields ablaze. Alasdair flashes blue eyes, of course, and thick legs "from a life of hills and riding hard," and his hair is "like the wet, autumn hillside -- old ferns, damp heather." (Clearly, I'm using the wrong shampoo.) He's got the right physique and stamina, but for some reason Fletcher won't push these two loamy lovers into Diana Gabaldon's lusty milieu. Alas, nobody's kilt gets wrinkled here. Even if you respect Fletcher's restraint, it's a tactical risk that leaves her novel awkwardly stranded betwixt the audience for literary fiction and the legion of romance readers.
In any case, the final section of the novel charges along with considerable drama and outrage. Despicable villains insinuate themselves into the MacDonalds' homes, and a coven of strange old hags straight from Shakespeare's Scottish play enter stage left to spin oblique prophesies.
In the end, it's not so much the assassins or the flames Corrag wants to escape as the old slur. "I'd dragged witch all my life," she tells Leslie. "All people have a certain creature in their head, when they hear it -- a woman, mostly. Pitch-dark and cruel, crooked with age." Corrag can't cast any spells to protect the people who took her in, but roused to her fiery height, she sweeps out a lot of the old cliches about witches and casts an enchanting spell in favor of bold women everywhere.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World.