“There is no match for the power of word” (107).
The Salem Witch Trials (1692–1693) represent a dark and disturbing chapter of American history, one which is often unexplored in classroom surveys. Twenty people were executed at the hands of the state and another five died in prison, based primarily on the testimony of a gaggle of young girls who claimed to be tormented by witchcraft. Only one, Ann Putnam, Jr., ever apologized for her part in the trials or expressed remorse for the harm her actions caused to the people of Salem. In Lies in the Dust, Jakob Crane explores the life of Ann, now an adult, who remains in Salem to raise her orphaned siblings despite the antipathy of the townsfolk.
Crane begins with a short historical introduction to the trials before focusing his story on Putnam. The narrative moves back and forth in time: Ann, as an adult, tells her story to her young siblings as a grown woman, remembering vividly those deadly months of accusations and trials. We see Ann’s remorse for her actions, as well as her anger and bitterness toward the adults, including her parents, having felt as though they used her and the other girls to their own selfish ends. In her reflections, Ann ponders the juxtaposition of God’s will with man’s choices and actions, and how that conflict still affects the people of Salem. Crane uses Putnam’s own words of apology to the people of Salem to close his story, a heartfelt lament in which she states, “I desire to lie in the dust, and to be humble for it, in that I was a cause, with others, of so sad a calamity to them and their families; for which cause I desire to lie in the dust, and earnestly beg forgiveness of God, and from all those unto whom I have given just cause of sorrow and offense, whose relations were taken away or accused” (118).
Decker’s grayscale art accompanies the tale, capturing vividly the haunted spaces of Ann’s memory and the hysteria of Salem in the throes of the witch craze. Characters are drawn in a starkly impersonal way, their faces mere lines of nose and mouth without clear personality. This lack of detail makes the reader feel emotionally detached from the characters in a way that more personalized figures might not. At the same time, it captures Ann’s perspective: they represent people who were present but not real to her, even as her pointed finger led to their deaths. Black demons and dark spirits lurk within Ann’s shadowed memory, reminding her of the fears that stalked Salem during those frantic months. The deaths of the accused are disturbingly vivid: bodies dangle from trees before they are shrouded and deposited in open graves and Giles Corey dies slowly pressed between the unforgiving earth and the piled stones on his chest. It is impossible—for Ann or the reader—to escape the horror that Ann and her cohorts brought to pass.
Lies in the Dust is a powerful reflection on guilt, innocence, atonement, and evil seen through the eyes of a broken woman who cannot escape her sins and regrets its consequences. Simultaneously, it offers a unique perspective on this troubling—and troublesome—part of American history. Islandport rates Lies in the Dust for readers 12 and older, but its best audience is likely those who already possess basic knowledge of the Salem trials, which will give Ann’s story a context for understanding. Some readers and their parents may be disturbed by the violent images throughout the work and references to dark supernatural forces. Potentially problematic elements include a ghostly visit from Ann’s dead mother and the implication that the children of Salem were not victims of witchcraft, but instead manipulated by parents who were willing to use them to achieve their own selfish goals. For readers who are interested in exploring the dark edges of American history, Lies in the Dust is a new and compelling exploration of these pivotal events.
Lies in the Dust
by Jakob Crane
Art by Timothy Decker
Islandport Press, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 12+