History or hysteria?
Inspired by true events – four words that are a TV producer’s dream. New York Times best-selling author Katherine Howe takes us into familiar territory in Conversion, where she mixes real events from the past with actual events of the present in her latest novel aimed at young adults.
In interviews, she’s stated that the inspiration for the book came from a news story reporting an outbreak of physical tics at a girls school in New York state. She wanted to explore the parallel between how unexplained illness was diagnosed and treated in the modern world versus colonial times.
Howe poses some thought-provoking ideas in Conversion: How often do we stubbornly cling to an explanation we favour in the face of mounting contrary evidence – if our explanation feeds our own interests? Oh, and is there magic in the world? (Like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible from 1953, Conversion dances widdershins around the question of witchcraft.)
Conversion employs a split narrative that jumps back and forth in time. For the majority of this story, we’re in the head of secondary school senior Colleen Rowley. After working hard her entire student life at an all-girls Catholic private secondary school, she’s on the verge of becoming valedictorian and has applied to prestigious colleges up and down the American East Coast.
With social and personal pressures mounting, girls at her school are coming down with various tics and twitches. As more classmates succumb to the illness, the medical community is at a loss to explain what is behind the outbreak. Colleen recounts her experiences to another person – this is the head we inhabit as she takes us through all that’s happened in her once sleepy town.
This main story is set in 2012 in Salem, Massachusetts; the same town where America’s notorious witch trials of 1692 occurred. This period was a particularly nasty time in US history in which a group of women (and a few men) were accused of being witches by their fellow townsfolk. After a “trial”, the women were executed for their crimes.
These interludes of the past are woven into the present-day story centred on Colleen. The short slivers pick up in the aftermath of the trials. They are recounted from the viewpoint of an actual participant in the proceedings and true historical figure: Ann Putnam, Jr. As mentioned in the Afterward, Ann was the only member of the original trio of accusers to later apologise for her part in the trials. Included as part of the novel is the actual recanting of the false testimony she gave.
Conversion imagines Ann as wanting to explain why she did what she did, eager to absolve herself to her priest of her participation in the witch hunt. For Colleen, the key is uncovering if history is repeating itself, or, as she comes to believe – perhaps something more sinister is going on.
Howe excels in her mastery of modern teen talk and the way smartphones have become part and parcel of everyday conversation among our youth, from texting to snap chats and Instagramming. One thing she’s not so accomplished at is the art of subtle foreshadowing. A few key plot developments are so clearly telegraphed at the start of the story that their reveal towards the end leads you to think more of a “finally” than an “oh wow, I didn’t see that coming”.
While our heroine is a fully-formed (albeit often times an unlikeable and frustrating) teenager, the supporting cast is slightly amorphous. Instead of creating defined personalities, Howe trots out old literary tropes as a quick shorthand to character development. She gives us people like the popular girl and her sidekicks, the quirky outsider, the well-intentioned priest, and the tough-as-nails with a heart-of-gold teacher, all the while leaving us to fill in the blanks from our own life experiences for these characters.
Putting these criticisms aside, Conversion is an engaging read. It’s light, quick-paced, and provides interesting takes on questions our ancestors tackled that we still face today: how should we treat the younger generation, what mob power can do to a once normally functioning society that’s overtaken by hysteria, and how that same hysteria affects people on a personal level.