[Book Review] Beyond the Burning Time by Kathryn Lasky

They say something very strange is happening to some of the people of Salem. That some of the young girls have become - troubled. And the fear is beginning to spread. Mary and her mother don't hear about the rumors right away. They don't know that many of the villagers believe that some of Mary's friends have had spells cast on them - by witches. Or that one of the accused is Mary's mother.

Now Mary and her brother, Caleb, have a decision to make: Are the villagers right? Or is their mother innocent? And if she is - can they help her escape before it's too late?

I had never heard of this book until I found an ex-library copy for sale at my local branch. Historical MG for $0.10? What on earth would I have to lose? Well, I'm honestly not the world's biggest fan of historical fiction (though I do read it on occasion), so the book languished on my shelves for a few years. I've been slowly eBaying off my 1000+ book collection for the past year or so now, and I wanted to make sure I gave this book a go before I got rid of it.

All in all, Beyond the Burning Time was solid MG historical fiction. It's no Witch of Blackbird Pond (disclaimer: it's probably been nearly a decade since I read that one, so my memories of it are almost certainly a bit off, but I remember loving it!), but it's a solid story about witch hysteria set in the village of Salem and neighboring Salem Town. It uses the backdrop of the real life tragedy to tell a fictional story of a family victimized by the many false accusations flying around town, and while I think it does a good job pointing out the inherent misogyny, greed, etc. motivating such hysteria periods of history, I wonder if the book doesn't suffer a bit for centering itself on fictional people instead of one of the many real historical figures who are relegated to supporting roles here.

(And honestly, I would suggest literally any edit that got Gilly out of the book. He's a potentially problematic character--I'm not knowledgeable enough on the nuance of portrayals of the disabled in media to say either way--and his POV sections legitimately made me nauseated, what with his stomach-churning fetish for some dead guy's old shoes and foot-sweat-smell--and I'm gagging just writing that--and his truly disturbing, documented-on-page thought process while stalking that very dead man's widow. WHY, LASKY, WHY?)

More than anything, though, I think the book suffers a bit in its last fifty pages or so as it tries to wrangle a happy ending for the characters. I expected Virginia to die; she did not. Odd though it is to say that I'm disappointed a children's book didn't kill off the children's mother... I am. The circumstances that come together to enable Virginia's survival are undeniably contrived. They're properly built up, more or less--(almost) all the pieces to the puzzle were properly foreshadowed, to the point that savvy readers will know by 1/3 of the way through the book that those elements will be used somehow in the climax--but I genuinely never expected those elements to build up to a conclusion that kept Virginia alive, and I'm not entirely convinced that I can suspend my disbelief to the point of accepting the logic behind that they did. It all makes sense, sure; it's just that after building up an entire narrative of utter, unfair, unavoidable tragedy, like a train being deliberately driven off the tracks... it just feels false for that someone to pull the emotional crux of the story out of the way of that train at the very last second. *shrug*

So while I enjoyed this well enough (in the sense that I couldn't honestly say I regret reading it), I don't think it's a book that I'll ever be revisiting, and I'll definitely be adding my copy to the "for eBay" pile. I've only got enough shelf space for real favorites these days, and while Beyond the Burning Time was leagues better than the last thing I read from Lasky (the bulk of the Ga'Hoole series), it's definitely not even in the outer orbit of being a new favorite.

(It is also, disappointingly, not the witch book I have vague memories of reading as a small child, which I'm still on the lookout for. Literally all I remember of that book was that there were maybe two main little kid characters--no idea of their age(s)--and there was something about a witch in a lake. If anyone's got suggestions on what that might've been, I would've read this sometime probably between 2000 and 2005; I'd love to hear any ideas anyone might have!)

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