The Witches: Discussion Questions

The WitchesAs part of Bas Bleu’s 2016 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus material about our Bluestocking BAM selection to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!) 

Our August Book a Month selection, The Witches by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff, is a sprawling, eminently readable plunge into the Salem witch trials that ravaged colonial Massachusetts and continue to haunt American culture today. In this ambitious account, Schiff’s vivid prose and in-depth research combine to create “a cautionary tale of how fear, panic and anxiety can transform a civilized society into a barbaric one.” The author herself, in an interview with BookPage, admitted, “At some point I thought the first line should have been, ‘This is a book about anxiety.’” All that to say: Your book club is going to have a field day with this one.

  1. In her opening chapter, Schiff writes, “We have believed in any number of things—the tooth fairy, cold fusion, the benefits of smoking, the free lunch—that turn out not to exist. We all subscribe to preposterous beliefs; we just don’t know yet which ones they are.” What beliefs have you held in the past that turned out to be based in fiction or falsehood? Or what beliefs do you currently hold that could be dubbed “preposterous” by someone from a different culture or time?
  1. More than three centuries after the trials, the term “witch hunt” is commonly used in American culture. Can you name three other serious “witch hunts” from U.S. history, when the judicial system and/or public opinion persecuted a specific group of people based on exaggerated or false claims? What did/do those witch hunts say about American life at the time?
  1. Women dominated the Salem witch trials, as both accusers and accused, though men held judicial power during the trials. Why? And what does our culture’s continued fascination with the trials say about our views of women?
  1. Today our national concept of witches is pretty harmless: pointy hats, broomsticks, and striped socks are de rigueur for children and adults alike on Halloween. During the trials, innocent men and women actually lost their lives based simply on an accusation of witchcraft. What other atrocities or dark periods from American history have been sanitized over time?
  1. What public figures today—be they politicians, religious leaders, or celebrities—use mob mentality to whip up support for their causes? Why are humans so susceptible to that emotionally charged groupthink? When is large-scale, shared public sentiment harmful and when is it beneficial?
  1. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony may have left England for idealistic reasons, but the realities they faced in the New World were terrifying: vast wilderness, illness and starvation, threats from French and native populations, and long, dark winters, just to name a few. While hopefully you’ve never encountered these challenges, has there ever been a period in your life when anxiety and despair (from your environment, your relationships, your job, etc.) caused you to act irrationally or in a manner that was out of character?
  1. Writers Arthur Miller and Washington Irving both played major roles in reshaping the facts of the Salem witch trials for contemporary readers. What “new” facts about the trials were most shocking for you? When have other literary works left you falsely informed about history?

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4 thoughts on “The Witches: Discussion Questions

  1. My book club had it as our choice for October. I was the only one who managed to get through it. The topic is dark. Yes. But the writing was just too chaotic and convoluted.

  2. My book club had planned to read Witches in October, but the person who recommended it withdrew it saying that it was too dark and disturbing . Can you respond to me with a possible, alternate viewpoint?

    • Hi, Barbara. Thanks for checking in. There’s no denying the Salem witch trials were a dark chapter in American history, a miscarriage of justice that proved tragic for too many victims. More than 300 years later, the trials continue to resonate in American history and culture, from McCarthyism, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, even clashes regarding gender roles in America. Just the other day, we read a political article that used the phrase “witch hunt.” All that to say: no, it’s not a happy story, but it’s an important event for us to study as humans seeking to learn more about why we do the things we do…so that we can prevent history from repeating itself. If your book club does decide to read it, we’d love to hear about the ensuing discussion!

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