Book: “Conversion” by Katherine Howe
Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, July 2014
Where Did I Get This Book: Audiobook from the library!
Book Description: It’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy, and school is a pressure cooker. College applications, the battle for valedictorian, deciphering boys’ texts: Through it all, Colleen Rowley and her friends are expected to keep it together. Until they can’t.
First it’s the school’s queen bee, Clara Rutherford, who suddenly falls into uncontrollable tics in the middle of class. Her mystery illness quickly spreads to her closest clique of friends, then more students and symptoms follow: seizures, hair loss, violent coughing fits. St. Joan’s buzzes with rumor; rumor blossoms into full-blown panic.
Soon the media descends on Danvers, Massachusetts, as everyone scrambles to find something, or someone, to blame. Pollution? Stress? Or are the girls faking? Only Colleen—who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit—comes to realize what nobody else has: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic three centuries ago . . .
Inspired by true events—from seventeenth-century colonial life to the halls of a modern-day high school—Conversion casts a spell. With her signature wit and passion, New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe delivers an exciting and suspenseful novel, a chilling mystery that raises the question, what’s really happening to the girls at St. Joan’s?
Review: So I was one of those kids who went to a private prep school in St. Paul from Kindergarten up through Senior Year. Gotta say, while it definitely more than adequately prepared me for college and graduate school, at the time I was under immense, immense pressure. So when I started listening to “Conversion” by Katherine Howe, there were a lot of things that were familiar to me. An ‘Upper School’ building for upper classmen. Homeroom being called ‘advisory’. A Dean of Students. I will say, however, that while I was under stress, I wasn’t going to school in a town that had a notorious history of people being falsely accused of witchcraft and then hanged. So yeah, I couldn’t say that I could totally relate to the tale that was told. In fact, I would say that beyond having the occasional moment of ‘ha, we had that too’, I didn’t really relate to the characters in “Conversion”, even if I was probably supposed to to a certain degree. While Howe definitely put in a good effort at writing teenage girls, a lot of the time it fell pretty darn flat.
I think that the first problem was Colleen herself. While I understand where Howe was trying to go with her, I found her to be incredibly naive and dense, far more dense that someone who is supposedly a legitimate contender for Harvard and neck in neck for Valedictorian at this prestigious prep school. I don’t really want to go into any spoilers here, but there are a few plot points that I feel would have been pretty damn obvious for a number of people who would have been in the situation and experiencing it first hand. I understand that to draw out suspense and story line she would have to be, but it felt like her intelligence was in conflict with the plot. And while I didn’t have as many problems with Colleen’s personality as others have, I didn’t find her to be terribly compelling as a narrator. Neither are her friends. Usually I can find a side character that keeps me going even if the protagonist isn’t too interesting, but in this one we didn’t even really get that. They are all pretty privileged girls whose problems, while mostly relatable given my high school experience, just didn’t connect to me.
Our other narrator is Anne Putnam, one of the girls in Salem Village who accused her neighbors of bewitching her. Far less sympathetic than Colleen (someone who isn’t really all that sympathetic to begin with), Anne tells her story from two perspectives: the time she was accusing people, and the time where she is gearing up to confess her sins to the rest of the town, long after the trials have finished and the fallout has left a mark. While I liked the fact that Howe clearly did a lot of research into the trials and the people involved, making them as realistic and historically accurate as possible. Sure, she took license with motivation, as we don’t know why these girls accused all of these innocent people of crimes that sealed their deaths, but I think that her theories in this story make sense. They definitely have more weight behind them than Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, though in his defense that wasn’t really about Salem. We all know that. Howe really committed to telling an accurate story. The problem is, while it is meant to serve as a juxtaposition to what is going on in Danvers in 2012, it doesn’t quite work.
And let me tell you why it doesn’t work. Howe has two stories that have similar themes (mass ‘hysteria’), but they ultimately don’t line up. Outside of being two groups of teen girls in the same geographical region, Howe throws in a couple of twists that ultimately undermine the juxtaposition that she put out there in the first place (side note: one of the solutions IS up to interpretation, I will give you that, but boy is it laid on pretty, and supernaturally, thick). I suppose that one could argue that one other connection may be a feeling of powerlessness for adolescent girls, which manifests in puritan times to the modern age, but again…. It’s undermined. I won’t say how, but it is, and that irritated me to no end.
Something that does work, though, is the modern analogs for the Witch Trials, in the form of a trial by media as opposed to a puritanical court room. The press is, of course, whipped into a frenzy about this ‘mysterious illness’ that has fallen upon these girls, and their attention on the school and the students just feeds into it and makes things much, much worse. Adding into that is the factor of rich, entitled, nasty parents who are rightfully afraid for their children, but then lash out when answers aren’t readily apparent. And then, of course, love the media attention, both for awareness an for their own egos. A few people definitely end up on the other end of their fury, and on the other end of the fallout of the mysterious illness. This was both the most interesting, and angering, plot point. Howe wrote this SO well, she has her fingers on the pulse of the nastiest parts of human nature, both in the modern time line and the past time line. These parts made me the angriest, and hey, that was a serious emotional reaction that she no doubt wanted. So she did her job. I did find myself frustrated that sometimes I think she wanted me to feel sympathy for the girls in Salem, as a being a Puritan was very hard, and being a female Puritan was even harder. The lack of power and the lack of agency was apparent. But nope. These girls condemned a number of innocent people to their deaths. I have no sympathy for that.
Finally, this was an audiobook, and the narrator was pretty good! I thought that she did a good job of making her voice sound like a teenage girl when she needed to, but also an adult when the character called for it. Her accents seemed pretty good to me, though I admittedly don’t know much about the linguistics of the Puritan era in America. Overall, I think it was more her that kept me going. Had I been reading this in print form I may have struggled.
So “Conversion” has its moments, but I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. Though now I’m definitely interested to learn more about the actual people of Salem beyond what was told to me in “The Crucible”.
Rating 6: Though the historical accuracy and research was spot on, “Conversion” had too few interesting characters and too many missed opportunities.
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