Book Reviews

Book Review: Salem Falls by Jodi Picoult – A Modern Take on The Crucible

There are some classic stories that one figures can never be quite adapted to our modern world. The story of the Salem Witch Trials, as told in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, is one that can be adapted in many ways, some more innocuous than others. Novelist Jodi Picoult, who usually takes modern issues and puts her own special spin on them in a fictional account, based her story, Salem Falls, on the same ideas Miller put forth in The Crucible. The modern-day witch hunt she uses is accusations of rape. Specifically, accusations of statutory rape. Up until recently in our modern society, for better or worse, once an accusation of rape or statutory rape is made public, that person’s life is pretty much over whether or not he (or she in some cases) is ever actually found guilty.

Salem Falls tells the story of Jack St. Bride. In the beginning, we meet him as a drifter as he wanders into the town of Salem Falls, New Hampshire. When he ventures into the Tip Top Diner and meets its rather eccentric owner, Addie, he thinks he’s found a place to rebuild his life. Unfortunately, one of the first things he must do as he settles into the town is to go to the police station and register as a sex offender. Obviously, he’s not too familiar with small-town life or he would have known this information would not stay private for long.

Jack is a very good-looking man who attracts the attention of various teenage girls around town. Specifically, Gillian Duncan is the daughter of the town’s wealthiest citizen. Amos Duncan owns the local pharmaceutical plant. Gillian makes it a point to seek out Jack at every turn, while he in general ignores her.

You see, Jack was once a teacher and popular soccer coach at an elite private girls’ school. His caring nature and good looks had one girl who was a bit of a loner to develop a crush on him and through a variety of missteps he ended up being accused of statutory rape. Poor legal counsel advised him to take a deal, and that was what put him in the situation he was in now. He’s trying to steer clear of the same situation, but Gillian is used to getting what she wants.

On top of it, Gillian has a group of friends with whom she practices witchcraft and generally dabbles in the occult. Of course, all of this is done in secret, and when a drunken Jack stumbles upon the four of them performing a ritual one cold night after he’s had a fight with Addie, Gillian accuses him of raping her to deflect attention from what the girls were actually doing out there.

After reading a few of Jodi Picoult’s novels, there is a definite similarity between them. They all seem to create a situation where a dramatic trial will unfold with media attention and a definite twist near the end. This one is no different. In that way, some of what happened was predictable to me.

However, Picoult has managed to take on a very topical issue and put it in a perspective many people don’t think about. Most of us do hear accusations of rape or sexual assault and immediately assume guilt. What good parent would allow their child around someone accused of that crime?

Picoult’s characters are very well-written. She gives the reader enough information to keep them interested in the story as well as the character without wandering off into territory where it becomes boring. This is especially true in the character of Jack’s court-appointed lawyer, Jordan McAfee. After reading Picoult’s books out of the order they were published, this is the third story I’ve read with Jordan in it, although chronologically it is the second story he appears in. Jordan’s life is a distraction from the main story, but it’s interesting and fun. Because he’s a character readers have read about before we care about him. If this is your first Picoult novel, you might wonder why so much time is spent on the home life of Jack’s lawyer.

The interaction between Jack and Addie is excellent. They really seem like two people who have a tremendous amount of baggage in life and connect with each other. Both of them are so afraid of letting the other see who they really are that it’s interesting to watch their defenses slowly peel away as they become more comfortable with each other.

There are a number of issues I had with Salem Falls. Picoult puts in a number of convenient plot points that probably wouldn’t happen in real life, especially involving the police department and the improper handling of Jack’s arrival in town as well as the case once it begins unfolding. Still, from someone who’s relocated to a small town, a lot of the behind-the-scenes gossip and secrets are pretty accurate to how information gets around, even when it involves the police department.

Picoult also manages to hold back enough of what’s really going on to keep the reader riveted to the end. There are many surprises to be revealed about what’s really happening behind closed doors in Salem Falls. I loved the evolution of Addie and her father throughout the novel, and as Addie confronted her own past and the events in it, it seemed entirely believable. Salem Falls is not a fairy tale by any stretch of the imagination.

Having witchcraft being practiced in a town called Salem Falls might be a bit too cliche in some ways. The way Picoult portrays Gillian’s practice of it and her fascination with Wicca is actually very respectful. Picoult manages to get the point across that there are certain rules that Gillian perverts in many ways, although by the end we see her as much more than just a spoiled rich girl who thinks everyone should bend to her will.

Well written with hardly a moment where the story bogs down, Salem Falls is a great book that will provide many discussion topics. In fact, there’s a set of book club discussion questions in the back. Like all of her books, it touches on topical issues and asks some tough questions that aren’t always easily answered. This is not light, pleasant reading, as the topic can be difficult for some. If you can stomach the topic with no baggage of your own, it is a good read.