'Conversion' resets the Salem witch trials in a preppy girls' school

'Mean Girls' meets 'Prep' meets the Salem witch trials to create a contemporary page-turner. 

Conversion, by Katherine Howe, Penguin Young Readers Group, 432 pp.

Do you feel that nip in the air yet? Autumn is coming, that most magical time of year in New England. Leaves are already changing, and I eagerly await the other harbingers of my favorite season – pumpkins on every stoop, orchards open for apple-picking, Starbucks’s caramel apple cider.

For the quincentennial town of Salem, Mass., autumn roars to life with an explosion of pointy black hats and witch-themed everything. Salem, of course, is infamous for the witch trials of 1692, dramatized by Arthur Miller in "The Crucible" (though locals surely wish the town were associated with more pleasant history). The trials are a tragic episode in early American history, brimming with mass hysteria, false accusations, and wrongful executions.

In Katherine Howe’s captivating new book, Conversion, Howe entwines the fictionalized confessions of real-life Salem witch-accuser Ann Putnam Jr. with the seemingly unrelated tale of Colleen Rowley, our whip-smart modern-day protagonist. Unrelated, that is, at first.

Colleen is a senior at St. Joan’s, a prestigious private school for girls, and her world revolves tightly around Ivy League applications and a tenth-of-a-grade-point struggle to beat out her rival for valedictorian. When we first meet her, it’s business as usual for a school day.

“Could there be a more normal Wednesday morning?” Colleen sighs. “It’s so normal, I almost want to embellish it, and add something kind of exciting or dramatic or interesting. But I just can’t, because nothing like that happened.… [T]he upper school hallway was awash like it always was in an ocean of girls in plaid skirts and cardigans and wool tights and Coach handbags from the outlet store.”

“This Wednesday should have been the most generic Wednesday imaginable, even if it was a Wednesday of the spring semester of our last year at St. Joan’s.”

In case you missed the giant arrows and flashing neon signs there, I’ll clue you in: this run-of-the-mill weekday is about to become legendary, because something extraordinary does happen. In the middle of first period – usually comprised of surreptitious texting, going over homework for the umpteenth time, or grumpily adjusting skirts to regulation length – queen bee Clara Rutherford falls to the floor in a mad seizure.

Within a week, four other girls are afflicted by the mystery illness. Within a month, the number has risen to 20 and just keeps climbing. No one can figure out what’s happening to the girls of St. Joan’s.

Panic snowballs from administrators and parents to local and even national media. The school nurse tries to blame it first on a vaccine, then on a vague disorder. A famous environmentalist tries to turn it into an eco-political crisis. The news crews just try to shove microphones in the remaining girls’ faces.

Amid the madness, Colleen’s been reading "The Crucible". She realizes that Danvers was formerly known as Salem Village – a.k.a. the epicenter for the witch trials, which started when a handful of teenage girls began to manifest inexplicable, bizarre symptoms. Draw your own conclusions, reader – Colleen certainly does, and Howe gives us quite a few to choose from by the end.

Howe infuses every page with terrific dialogue and detail, and the fingerprints of her personal history are all over "Conversion": she lives in New England, lectures on American and New England studies, and is a direct descendant of three accused Salem witches. Her first book was also about the trials. So, needless to say, she knows her stuff.

That becomes abundantly clear in the Ann Putnam chapters. Howe’s command of period detail and Puritan voice, laced with suspense and zealotry, is just plain delectable.

Ann recounts the early gossip about two “cursed” girls:

“If the rumors are true, several worthy gentlemen spent many days up in the parsonage attic, gathered about Abby and Betty’s bedsides, united in prayer. They’ve fasted, and Reverend Parris’s been heard to claim that Satan is laying siege to Salem Village.… The talk of Betty and Abigail is nothing but pity for their suffering Christian souls. They are innocent lambs being punished for the sin that’s hidden in the heart of the village, and we should all examine our souls with open eyes to root out the evilness within.”

On the other hand, there’s Colleen’s decidedly 21st-century narration. I love when authors accurately capture modern teen interaction, like in this juicy snippet:

“It was rare to see open aggression at St. Joan’s. Oh, it’s not like we were innocent lambs who sat around holding hands all day. It’s just that most of our methods were more subtle. If we wanted to make someone feel how truly insignificant she was, there were ways and ways of doing it. Backhanded compliments on a Facebook feed. A subtweet or two. A stare just a second too long, followed by a tiny roll of the eyes. Whispering, always whispering. These were the methods of discipline and hierarchy employed in the halls of St. Joan’s.”

It’s so "Mean Girls" – remember Cady Heron, discovering the catty unwritten codes of Girl World? I totally get it, and I totally love it. Both sets of teenage girls, though 300+ years apart, maintain facades of meek purity to cover the roiling darkness inside. “Innocent lambs,” not so much.

"Conversion" melds the best bits of private school drama (think Curtis Sittenfeld’s "Prep") with the mystique of the supernatural. Pick it up this fall for a good old-fashioned mystery and maybe even a flashback to your high school years (for better or for worse). Be prepared to love this bewitching page-turner!

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