Conversion by Katherine Howe

ConversionI had read Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane awhile ago. It had a similar colonial American, witchy plot but the conclusion proved to be disappointing. Nevertheless, I was open to giving her another shot with Conversion.

Colleen Rowley and her friends are seniors at the ultra-competitive prep school, St. Joan’s Academy in Danvers, Massachusetts. Amidst the pressures of college applications, the fierce battle for valedictorian, and blooming (or withering) romantic relationships, the girls of St. Joan’s start to crumble. It begins with queen bee Clara Rutherford, who has a seizure in the middle of homeroom and returns to school several days later with uncontrollable tics. It spreads to her closest friends and classmates, until seemingly half the senior class is losing hair or coughing up pins. As the national spotlight descends on Danvers and the community struggles to find a cause for the sickness, Colleen, while reading “The Crucible” for extra credit, realizes that Danvers used to be named Salem Village and centuries ago, a group of young girls experienced a frighteningly similar epidemic…

I read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in high school, and assisted my friends in running lines for the play, so it was interesting to see how Howe tied it in with the story. She weaved together the past with the present in alternating chapters, so that the narratives mirror each other and as Ann Putnam in 1692 Salem explains her role in the events of the witch trials, Colleen figures out more of the historical and current truth.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find either main characters likeable, but for once I’m fine with that, because I think it worked well with the morals of the story. The girls in both times were self-centered, albeit understandably stressed, sheep who followed the leader out of an entitled sense of importance. They didn’t think about the repercussions beyond themselves. I sympathized more with Ann, who at least was conflicted about her actions, than Colleen, who was a terrible person even before this event. She constantly disparaged her friends and acquaintances in her head while playing nice, was wrapped up in her own self too much to be supportive of others, and acted intellectually superior and entitled to good grades.

As a result, it took Colleen quite a long time to figure out what was going on, so called “conversion disorder,” i.e. the girls were faking for attention. Or so we were meant to think I think – the ending confused me though. I would’ve been satisfied with the conversion conclusion, even if they couldn’t prove it, when out of left field the witchy elements make a comeback. I guess the spooky mysteriousness surrounding Emma’s family warranted some explanation no matter how out of the blue.

At the very least, the romance was negligible, which is a plus for me (I’m purposely ignoring the student-teacher relationship because of it’s connection to the supernatural explanation and because of its general ickiness). And the contemporary narrative was pretty awful as were the closing chapters. However, I read this for the psychological and historical elements more than anything else, and while I thought they could’ve been more fleshed out, Ann’s story was enjoyable enough for me to give this

3 Stars

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