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Salem witch story looms large over tale of girls' illness

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A mysterious illness is attacking the teenage girls of prestigious St. Joan's Academy in Massachusetts. One by one, the girls succumb to tics, convulsions and a variety of symptoms: a star athlete suddenly can't walk, another girl loses all her hair at once, another hacks up balls of pins.

Officials initially think the illnesses are reactions to a vaccine, then it is surmised the girls have PANDAS, a neurological complication to previous bouts of strep throat. As dozens of students fall ill, the diagnosis of conversion disorder -- when emotional stress is converted into physical symptoms -- is finally accepted.

Or maybe not. Seeing that the school is in Danvers, Mass. -- formerly known as Salem Village -- perhaps the real reason for the trouble is witchcraft.

Conversion is bestselling American author Katherine Howe's third novel in five years, and her second using the story of Salem's witch trials. This novel is her first in the young adult category, but adult fans will also enjoy this suspenseful and richly layered fiction that offers both contemporary and historical narratives.

Howe, herself a descendent of two of the women declared as witches during the Salem panic, takes the plotlines of a recent 2011 news story of mysterious illness at Le Roy girls' school in New York state and interweaves an account of the 17th-century Salem witch trials.

Into this cauldron, Howe adds the familiar high school text of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, itself a retelling of the Salem events. Colleen Rowley, the teenaged protagonist of Conversion, receives anonymous text messages about The Crucible, her younger brother inexplicably steals her copy of the book, and after the regular English teacher suddenly leaves the school, the "badass" English substitute assigns The Crucible to Colleen for an extra-credit research essay.

Reading The Crucible brings Colleen to her own ideas about what is really happening to her classmates "who are twitching and flapping like dying fish."

Colleen is a smart, highly driven senior student acutely conscious of the social mores and cliques in St. Joan's Academy. She is grooming herself for acceptance to Harvard, and knows to one-tenth of a grade point how far behind she is in her competition to be school valedictorian. Receiving 65 per cent on a pop quiz sends her into paroxysms of anxiety.

For Colleen, senior year at school "is basically the moment that sets up the rest of our entire lives and whether we're going to be successful and get everything we want or whether we're going to die alone in a ditch in the snow."

As her classmates develop bizarre symptoms, rumours fly fast and furious on Facebook and Twitter. Some of the afflicted girls appear on national television talk shows, and the school becomes the site of a media circus. On the periphery of all this mayhem are boyfriends whose sincerity is measured by how quickly, and how often, they reply to text messages.

Although the lives of educated and privileged modern teen girls may seem unrelated to the domestic labour of girls in 17th-century Salem, who were not even allowed to learn to read, Howe draws parallels in the pressures of their lives. She also skilfully renders the way both communities, ostensibly run by grown-ups, still offered little in the way of useful adult assistance to the teen girls, leaving them on their own to suffer and struggle, get taken by mob frenzy, or prosper by whatever means available.

Howe bases the contemporary plot of the novel on the real-life happenings at Le Roy school but sets a spookier tone with the almost Gothic atmosphere of her invented St. Joan's Academy. Howe's use of red herrings, her skill in creating suspense and the echoing of the Salem witch story keeps readers guessing about the ultimate forces messing up -- and giving power to -- the lives of teenage girls.


Mary Horodyski works as an archival researcher in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2014 G6

History

Updated on Saturday, July 5, 2014 at 8:29 AM CDT: Formatting.

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