Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill

63855632Lynn: Why did they do it? What made a group of teenage girls accuse over 144 people of witchcraft? In the end 19 people were hanged and one man pressed to death in one small community. In her brilliant new book, Wicked Girls: A Novel of the Salem Witch Trials (Harper/Balzer + Bray 2010), Hemphill explores the complex stew of social dynamics and emotions that may have motivated the accusations. In her fascinating author’s note at the end of the novel, Hemphill relates some of the many theories about the girls’ actions ranging from ergotism to post-traumatic stress from Indian attacks. A more sociopolitical theory notes the class division and the feud that existed between the two major families in the town. Hemphill herself points to a mix of complex social factors including the lack of power and control for young girls and the dreary burdens of everyday life.

And therein lies the real power in this amazing book – Hemphill’s ability to connect us to the emotions and motivations of these long-dead girls and their charges that to us today are abhorrent and ludicrous. It is impossible to read these gorgeous verses and not feel deep empathy for these Salem girls nor to see mirrored in their story the interplay and dynamics of today’s high school cliques. Boredom, mischief, jealousy, the heady sense of having power, control and attention are intensely portrayed in meticulously authentic language that evokes the time while anchoring the experience firmly to the present. As the entertaining train of events turns horrifying and takes on a life of its own, the group breaks apart and this to me was the most haunting part of the book.

Stephanie Hemphill shows us what verse novels should be and seldom are. The poetry is stunning while doing all the things a novel is supposed to do: setting, character development, plot, voice and thematic exploration. This is a book that is deeply affecting and impossible to forget.

Cindy: I am still trying to recover from reading the haunting and mesmerizing Printz Honor-winning Your Own, Sylvia, Hemphill’s illumination of the complex poet, Sylvia Plath, and now she has me in her grip again with a whole new set of women. I visited Salem in college and toured the Salem Witch Museum and have always been fascinated by this period in our history. As in any good historical novel, the events of more than three centuries ago are brought to life, examined, all the while being made relevant to the daily lives of teens today as Lynn alludes to above.

But what brings me eagerly to Hemphill’s latest book is not my fascination with the time period or the story of persecution. It is the POETRY. She is among the finest of verse novelists because her verse is so very, very good. Her verse novels are not prose with line breaks like so many are out there today. Many of these stand alone as exquisite poems but as a whole they sing a powerful story. I would love to have Hemphill give us one of these gems ever couple of years, they will be worth the wait…and perhaps, one day, we’ll get a collection of varied poetry from her as well. Put me on the waiting list for all of it.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

2 Comments on "Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill"

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  1. angela.craft@gmail.com' Angela says:

    I have to admit, I wasn’t a huge fan of the poetry…but it’s well established that I’m not a fan of poetry in general. However, the STORY of this is absolutely riveting, and I loved Hemphill’s exploration of not only why the girls started making accusations, but why they didn’t stop earlier.

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