Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Book Review: "The Devil of Great Island"

It's not often that Salem plays second fiddle in a book about New England witchcraft, but it does so in Emerson Baker's The Devil of Great Island (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). Baker concentrates on a 1682 incident on the Maine frontier in which the Walton family's house and members were subjected to a relentless and damaging assault by flying stones, a phenomenon called lithobolia. These events, Baker argues, allow for a broader perspective on the role of witchcraft accusations in northern New England, and serve to highlight the diverse and contentious nature of the region during the late seventeenth century.

Drawing on previous work by John Demos, Carol Karlsen and Mary Beth Norton - among others - Baker manages to weave the lithobolia incidents into our understanding of how witchcraft accusations came to be used as the ultimate trump card in disputes over property, power or pulpits. Although it takes him quite a long time to get to it, I think in the end Baker makes a solid case for his suggested culprit (the nephew of the woman the Waltons accused of launching the 'supernatural' assault).

The strongest elements of this book are Baker's synthesis of the scholarship connecting witchcraft allegations to other longstanding disputes over various important issues, and his comparison of the 1682 stone-throwing to the events at Salem a decade later. He offers much interesting background materials on the demographics of northern New England, the tangled histories of New Hampshire and Maine and other subjects; unfortunately the digressions he makes from the main narrative to delve into these larger areas prove rather distracting.

I had a few additional quibbles with Baker's writing style, which incorporates a bit too much slang or informalities for my taste. However, for those interested in understanding New England witchcraft from a broader angle and with a different focal point than Salem, this book and its predecessors are certainly recommended.