Conversion by Katherine Howe review

A1VeWPHu6FLIt’s the final year at St. Joan’s Academy, and Colleen Rowley and her friends are feeling the heat. University applications, deciphering boys’ texts… all of it has turned life into a pressure cooker. And much like their school’s namesake, Joan of Arc, they’re expected to keep it all together. Until they can’t.

The first victim is gorgeous, popular Clara Rutherford, who starts having loud and uncontrollable tics while her horrified classmates look on. More students follow suit with new symptoms – seizures, body vibrations, uncontrollable coughing fits, hair loss. The media descends on the small town, as school officials, angry parents and health experts scramble to find something, or someone, to blame. Environmental pollution? Could the girls be faking? Or succumbing to stress? But as Colleen – who has been reading The Crucible for extra marks – soon realises, there’s one thing that nobody has factored in: the town was once Salem Village, the site of a similarly bizarre epidemic among teenage girls over three-hundred years ago. And when she learns that her best friend is hiding a secret that could jeopardise her future, the pieces finally start to fit together.

Hang on, what genre is this book?

If I was an actual librarian, I wouldn’t be sure where to shelve this book – half of the story has a contemporary setting, the other half historical, but both are also fictionalised accounts of real-life events. We need a new contemporary/historical fictionalised non-fiction section, people! It was fun reading a book that didn’t sit comfortably in any of the usual boxes. Plus, Katherine Howe is a lecturer in American Studies at Cornell University, and she has really done her research, drawing inspiration from the Salem witch trials in 1692 and a mystery sickness that struck the all-girls school of Le Roy, New York in 2012.

These girls are under too much pressure!

I could definitely relate to the contemporary setting of senior year at school. I still sometimes get those final exams nightmares – you know the ones where suddenly you are going into an exam and realise you haven’t revised. The panic! In the competitive environment of St. Joan’s, the senior year girls are all obsessed with their GPA and college applications and Colleen, our modern-day narrator, is more so than most – this girl really, really wants to be valedictorian! Colleen, Anjali, Deena and Emma have their tight-knit group of friends, but even within that there are constant unspoken comparisons. And when the Mystery Illness strikes, they are thrown into the centre of a media frenzy. It’s pretty intense and an extreme scenario, but it did make me stop and think about the huge amount of pressure some teens are put under – not just by their parents and peers but also by themselves.

So many unknowns…

There is a whole lot of uncertainty going on in this book. Colleen isn’t sure what to make of her enigmatic new teacher Ms. Slater, or the anonymous text messager who urges her to read The Crucible and delve deeper into what’s really going on at the school. Colleen’s best friend Emma has secrets, and her mum stays indoors all the time with ‘headaches’, but we’re never really sure why. And nobody, not the school board, the department of health or countless experts, has a clue what is going on with the Mystery Illness. The real problem is that none of these adults know how to handle the resulting situation, and that’s why it all unravels: the order has been upset. Teenagers might be almost adults themselves, and they might rebel and test boundaries, but they still look to adults for authority and reassurance. It’s just that those adults don’t always know how to deal with difficult situations. Maybe that’s what happened during the real Salem witch trials? In Howe’s version of events, the adults certainly have their own agenda and seem to be manipulating the girls’ actions.

Will we ever really know what happened?

As we near the end of the book, everyone finally agrees on the true cause of the Mystery Illness, and it is all rather neatly dealt with and swept under the carpet. But Colleen has her own theory and doubts, and, just as the Salem witch trials will forever remain an historical enigma, her unanswered questions leave us wondering – will we ever really know what happened?

A gripping read, but some slow points along the way

For the most part I was swept along by the story – although more so by Colleen’s narrative than by the interlude chapters where we read the confession of Ann Putnam (a real-life person involved in the Salem witch accusations). But there were a few scenes that I found a bit clunky – Colleen’s family all sit round the TV and watch news reports about the Mystery Illness, and Clara and some of the other afflicted girls being interviewed on a chat show. I guess these scenes were meant to echo the courtroom of the Salem witch trials, but the dialogue was stilted and forced and it all felt static and awkward to me.

The verdict?

I accuse Katherine Howe of writing an intelligent, thought-provoking book and find her guilty as charged.

If you like Conversion, why not try…

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