Author: Katherine Howe
Length: 402 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
[2/15 novels in November]
As the seniors of the prestigious St. Joan’s Academy prepare for their final semester, stressing over college applications and interviews, GPAs, boyfriends and the like, one of the prettiest and most popular girls in school suddenly collapses in what appears to be a seizure. Soon, more girls fall prey to what becomes known as the “Mystery Illness of 2012.” Colleen Rowley tries to remain calm and focused as tensions skyrocket, teachers get fired, and her friends begin disappearing for weeks at a time—and her extra-credit project on Arthur Miller’s famous play The Crucible may hold all the answers.
Note: This review is (relatively) spoiler-free. I have included some hidden spoilers in my Goodreads review.
I’m giving Conversion a hesitant three-and-a-half stars, because I enjoyed reading it, but some of its ideas don’t sit quite right with me.
The Salem witch hysteria of 1692 has been written about ad nauseum, as I discussed in my review of The Heretic’s Daughter earlier this year. Here, Katherine Howe writes two interwoven stories that draw parallels between the real young girls who accused people of witchcraft in Salem and fictional students in Danvers, Massachusetts who begin suffering from a “Mystery Illness.” Howe adds “interludes” in the past regularly, but she avoids doing it often enough to make it feel like overkill. Despite the—supposed—parallels, this is not a reincarnation and/or a possession story.
The 2012 characters were pretty well fleshed-out and sympathetic, even the somewhat stereotypical mean girls, and Colleen was pretty likeable as narrators go. I liked her voice a lot. The prose sounded authentically “teenage,” but also—keeping in mind that this is YA fiction—had a touch of…elegance? I’m not sure how to describe it. Some readers may have found Howe kind of wordy, but I loved the detail and descriptions from Colleen’s POV.
Of Colleen’s friends, I found Emma the most fascinating. Anjali and Deena made for decent supporting characters, and fortunately neither relied on stereotypes. Deena could be a bit snarky, but there was no “Sassy Black Friend” here (thank God)! Her parents were actually somewhat competent, a rarity in YA, and her love interest is passable as a character, though I felt that he was unnecessary to the plot.
And it was a good plot. It really was. The mystery, well, mystified me, and the tension was palpable throughout. Conversion is a genuine page-turner; I wanted to find out what would happen at St. Joan’s Academy next—who was going to fall ill? What were their symptoms? What would happen to Colleen? What was Emma hiding?
The most puzzling question was, of course, “How is the Mystery Illness connected to the witch hysteria?”
Not only did the “Interlude” chapters make the it clear that there was necessarily a connection, but Danvers was once at the heart of the hysteria. The city began as a rural farming community called Salem Village, and most of the victims lived there. (The city now known as just Salem was then Salem Town, where the jail and execution site were located.) Salem Village, ashamed of its infamous past, changed its name to Danvers in the mid-eighteenth century. Also, The Crucible is discussed. A lot.
To be honest, I almost wish the novel had had nothing to do with Salem or its history, because as interesting as Ann Putnam’s chapters were, they seemed a bit superfluous. Howe did write them quite well, however. Ann’s narration and the dialogue sounded authentic while still being readable for people not well-versed in seventeenth-century history.
I understand what Howe was trying to accomplish. Her Author’s Note at the end still read like a bunch of waffle, though at least it was not (as I mentioned above) any kind of “reincarnation” business.
Two other things kind of bugged me. First, for a girl as brilliant as Colleen, a girl in AP U.S. History who has applied to places like Dartmouth and Harvard, she seemed to know jack about her own town. I mean, is your senior-year history class really the first time someone who lives in the town where the Salem witch trials went down would learn about the ins and outs of those trials? She knows Danvers used to be Salem Village, so did she just sleep through the rest? And given that readers were beaten over the head with the Crucible business, shouldn’t Colleen have put the pieces together sooner?
Secondly, the semi-paranormal elements of the 2012 story really threw me. They made me question whether Katherine Howe believes that something unnatural really happenened in Salem in 1692. In fact, I got the feeling that she entertained that notion throughout the novel, which is why I wish she had divorced the two plots. Either commit to that idea—that something supernatural (and fictional) is, at least, happening in 2012 that has some connection to the events of 1692—or ditch it. Don’t hover in the middle and claim that that’s part of your point.
Again, I do appreciate what she was going for. Life for
everyone young girls in Puritan communities was difficult and unpleasant, and life as a teenage girl, especially in high school, can also be stressful. I did sympathize with Colleen and Emma and the lot of them; I have lived through that stress, that pressure. But you cannot ignore the fact that the actions of the girls of Salem Village—regardless of whether they were beaten or neglected or whatever—were in part responsible for the deaths of nineteen innocent people. Ann Putnam was right to apologize publicly.
But most of the people harmed in the 2012 story were the sick girls themselves. The situation got out-of-hand, sure, but the comparison just doesn’t hold much water.
So I really am conflicted: should I rate this book based on how much I enjoyed it while I was reading, on the fact that I did not want to put it down? That I was hungry for more information and a solution to the mystery? Or should I rate it based on the author’s seemingly misguided ideas and goals and the overall theme of the stories?
I just don’t know. But I did enjoy it. I’m a sucker for boarding school stories, and this one was almost a boarding school story. The overall atmosphere, the setting—coastal New England in the winter; a former-convent-turned-private-school—and the tone of Colleen’s story—tense with moments of lightness and humor—really added something, I thought. (This is also the first New England-based novel I’ve read since living in New England, so I kept thinking, “Oh, I’ve been there!” And let me say, in my experience, Danvers is nowhere near as quaint and quiet as it was painted here…)
Conversion, I think, is a reader-by-reader novel. You might love it, or you might hate it or even be offended by it. Katherine Howe showed great promise here, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her stuff. I just don’t think this was “the” one for her. Like her high school cast, she has a lot of growing to do.
But don’t we all?