Maryse Condé, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (Guadeloupe*)

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“At times, however, the anguish came back. I knew that misfortune never gives up. I knew it singles out those of a certain sort and I waited.”

As I’ve mentioned more than once in various posts, I’m a history girl. I have a degree in it, I read about it for fun, and here once again is a story based on a not-really-that-long-ago reality in a place not so far from me. In fact, I was in Salem in October. It really plays up the witch on the broomstick image, but was worth visiting for the actual history: the (surprisingly recent) memorial with the names of those executed, and a rather depressing epitaph: “Lord help me, I’m wholly innocent of such wickedness, God knows I am innocent, do not plead guilty, I can deny it to my dying day, I am no witch.”

Despite having taken that quick journey into the past, I had never heard of Tituba until this story – even after reading the foreword of the book, I still wasn’t entirely sure if she had existed. I suppose, apart from a Simpsons Halloween episode that spoofed the Salem witch trials and my wander through the memorial, I didn’t have much background knowledge of the whole affair, but between this book and some subsequent googling I now feel fairly well-versed.

The Salem witch trials are fascinating for several reasons, one being that it seems like a rare time in history when anyone could be targeted. As the rest of Tituba’s life demonstrates, so often people suffer because of their race. Religion is of course another cause for persecution, as the Jewish man she later falls in love makes clear.  In Salem however, there was something of an arbitrary nature to who faced accusations and punishment (I think there’s a perception this was largely a persecution of women, probably because of the “witch” title, but several men were executed as well). And strangely, while Tituba is held as a slave, feared, ridiculed and generally treated more poorly than anyone else in town even before the witch business, she doesn’t end up going to the gallows like so many others.

But despite the book’s title, Tituba spends less than half the book in Salem. Much of the abuse she suffers is wholly unrelated to the witch trials, and much of the story takes places in her beloved Barbados. I call it a story because although she was real, this is a fictionalized history. Maryse Condé acknowledges that Tituba’s ultimate fate isn’t known, and of course neither are her thoughts. There’s also debate about whether she was the “black” witch of Salem, or if she was native. I don’t feel like that hampers the truth in the story though. Condé picked a historical figure and gave her the life that no one knows anything about. Even if it isn’t exact, I’m sure the final product is the sum of several realities.

While Tituba’s race is emphasized, and her life events are in many ways defined by it, the book also focuses largely on the trials she faces as the result of her sex. After she’s jailed she discovers her black, slave husband saved himself by accusing others and ended up the lover of a white widow, prompting her jailhouse companion Hester to remark “Life is too kind to men, whatever their color.”

The most incredible thing about this book is that overall, I didn’t find it too depressing. You would think the story of a slave women, taken from her home country, betrayed by the girls she’s helping raise, charged and jailed for witchcraft, abandoned twice by men she loves and arrested again would be a downer of a novel. But Tituba found some joy in life regardless of her circumstance, be it enslaved, outcast or imprisoned. And while her life ends in tragedy, her spirit lives on and the book (or at least the epilogue) ends on something of a high note.

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The cemetery of Salem – none of the “witches” are buried here as they were considered in league with the devil and couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground

* Technically Guadeloupe – a group of Caribbean islands – is part of France but I’m counting it separately.

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