One of Windsor: the Untold Story of America’s First Witch Hanging chronicles the life of Alice Young, born Alice Ashby, from her birth to her execution as an alleged witch of Windsor, Connecticut, which happened about 45 years before the Salem witch trials. Originally from England, she emigrated to The New World at the age of 20, met and married John Young, and had a family. She was executed for witchcraft in her late forties.
The start of any book is supposed to hook you in immediately. After all, that’s what makes you want to keep on reading, right? There was nothing like that here. The first chapter begins with two ministers (one being a young Cotton Mather) yacking on and on about the sin pervading the colonies, and how they must stop it, meaning that innocent people will be accused and executed for witchcraft. I kept hoping for something exciting to happen, but was disappointed. Nevertheless, I wanted to give this book a chance and kept reading. After all, some books just have slow beginnings but turn out to be masterpieces, such as Les Miserables and Gone With the Wind.
In Chapter 2, we witness the birth of our heroine Alice Young, whose mother is attended by her female cousins, the Tinker family. Too many characters were introduced by name to keep them all straight in my mind, and it took three attempts to really remember who most of them were. There is Alsie Ashby, Alice Ashby, Gwendolyn the midwife, Mrs. Mary Merwin Tinker, Sara Tinker, Ellen Tinker, little Mary Tinker, Margaret Tinker, Robert Tinker, Rhody Tinker, and John Tinker, not to mention three people who were dead, and all of these people are mentioned in the second chapter. How is a reader to keep fourteen people straight?
As writers, we’re often told to show what is happening with scenes and dialogue, not to just tell/speak of unfolding events with little character participation other than the person or persons filling in the roles of people just doing things. Don’t tell me how there were bad smells of vomit and cockroach infestations on the ship that took you to America...show me. Show me that the odors were so bad that you thought you’d never inhale fresh air again, especially since the captain and crew forced you and your fellow passengers to stay in the dark and foul-smelling, closet-sized cabins for nearly three months. Show me how you felt when the roaches crawled on you and how you probably had to pick them out of your putrid food. Show me what it was like to not be able to wash your clothes for those two-and-a-half months when being crammed in that cabin with seven other people. Never have I read so much “tell” and barely any “show.” I felt like I was reading the narration of a story, or better yet, a history book, never truly getting into the minds of the characters. The most predominant writing pattern was that the chapters alternated between many pages of “telling” and long pages of dialogue in which each character spoke a large paragraph during conversations.
The dialogue, when it occurred between bouts of telling, was uninspired and devoid of humor. The characters were so indistinctive from one another that I often couldn’t tell who was doing the talking, which was often in complete sentences that felt very forced and unnatural. No slang, no improper English, no short, clipped sentence fragments, which are the ways real people actually speak. One of them even used the phrase, “Nice to meet you,” which sounded way too modern for 17th-century English. Something like, “I am honored to meet thee,” would have been better.
In discussing the many many characters, I found them all to be incredibly dull and one-dimensional. I honestly could not care about any of them, and none of them really stood out. Alice was supposed to be the star of this book, but I rarely got a glimpse of what was going on inside her head. Her most compelling moment for me was when she was told to remove the lace from her cap by a minister because it was against the law for a servant to wear such finery, and she secretly stitches it to her undergarments because she’s desperate to hold onto this last souvenir from her homeland. Heaven forbid people actually want to look nice, right? Other than this moment, I saw nothing else about Alice that truly showed who she was as a person or made her interesting, other than her “second sight” (which was mentioned and never touched on again), and her extensive knowledge of herbal properties. Granted, I know that little is known about the real Alice Young’s life, but in fiction we are allowed some artistic license in a case like this to keep the story interesting. Make me care about the woman whom I know will die an unfair, early and tragic death.
I read six more chapters (totalling a hundred pages) of this book before I finally had to give up. I really despise not being able to finish a book, but I was having to force myself to keep reading. I thought the story looked very promising, as I’m very much interested in the history surrounding America’s first colonies, particularly the Salem witch trials. The premise of this book was exciting, and the editing was quite good, but it just was not a winner for me.