Salem Falls (2001) by Jodi Picoult is a modern reworking of the Arthur Miller classic play The Crucible (1953), with a bit of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) thrown in. There’s very little originality in Salem Falls . In fact, the parallels to The Crucible are so similar that it’s a wonder Miller’s estate doesn’t sue Picoult. Although The Crucible was Miller’s comment on the McCarthy Trials, it was a chilling fictionalization of a 1692 witch hunt where a jilted mistress accuses her lover of being a witch.
Picoult’s nod to the two classics is best summed up in a scene where the Lolita-like character, Gillian, is forced to read The Crucible in English class and thinks it’s stupid. But even though we’ve all read this plot before, Picoult is still a talented storyteller and Salem Falls is a page-turner.
Trivia buff and schoolteacher Jack has been released from prison where he was falsely accused of raping a student in the town of Loyal. No one believes that Jack was innocent. Jack gets hired by a wacky owner of a diner in Salem Falls, New Hampshire. She seems to believe her dead daughter is still alive. She also has an alcoholic father. Other than that, she’s a good boss.
While Jack is building his hew life and helping the diner owner repair hers, the action shifts to the antics of a teen coven of Wiccans at the local high school. The coven’s High Priestess is Gillian Duncan, daughter of the richest man in town. She develops a crush on Jack. Things come to a head on Beltane. The next day, Jack is accused of raping Gillian. Did he? And if he didn’t, will anyone believe him?
The Treatment of Modern Witches
This writer was a solitary Witch for about ten years, so I was curious to see how modern witches were portrayed. Salem Falls is two steps forward and one step back for the media’s treatment of modern Wiccans and pagans. Although Picoult names two much respected Wiccan authors as her source material on Wicca (Scott Cunningham and Starhawk), there are the usual mistakes, silly assumptions and Hollywood hype.
For example, in this book, witches are typecast as being always evil, albeit unintentionally evil and willing to atone for mistakes. Although every story needs an antagonist, did we really have to go the old route and choose witches? Picoult also states that witches never take off their pentagrams. Not true.
In Hollywood, whenever a witch uses her magic, things always get worse and hilarity ensues. Salem Falls is no different in toting that line. This reinforces the suggestion that modern witches and pagans are “wrong” for trying to make their world a better place by using any means necessary – including magic spells. Although I am now an atheist, I find this a narrow viewpoint for a novelist.
Although a good read, do not take “Salem Falls” seriously. Also, avoid “Salem Falls” if you were a victim of rape or parent to a rape victim. This may bring up some very disturbing conclusions.