24 September 2014

Book Review: The Penguin Book of Witches

Note: I received a free digital copy of this book through Penguin First to Read.

From its title, The Penguin Book of Witches sounds like it could be anything from a child's Halloween picture book to a collection of literary works about magical practitioners. In reality, the anthology's contents straddle the line between fact and fiction, gathering primary source documents related to the belief in witchcraft in early America. Beginning with a handful of sources from England just before the colonization of North America, continuing through the infamous Salem witch trials, and breaking off in the late eighteenth century, The Penguin Book of Witches is a curious collection of documents that treat the subject of witchcraft with a dead seriousness that seems bizarre to the modern reader.

The Penguin Book of Witches has obvious uses for scholars and students, and enthusiasts and writers may find the book interesting and useful as well. As a fan of fantasy and supernatural fiction, I was intrigued by the premise of the book, and the documents reminded me somewhat of Barbara Michaels' retelling of the Bell Witch story in her book Other Worlds. However, my interest in the subject is somewhat casual, and I didn't find myself wanting to read the book straight through just for pleasure.

Overall, The Penguin Book of Witches is an excellent scholarly resource on a somewhat obscure subject, a good source of information for writers who need details on the topic and time period, and a potentially fascinating read for those with a deep interest in the subject or history buffs who enjoy primary source documents. Those like me who prefer their witches wholly fictional might want to stick with novels and short stories, but may also enjoy the occasional dip into the book.

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