CONVERSION BY KATHERINE HOWE – Review by Sarah Mulhern Gross
“Sarah, which of these books should I read from the summer reading list?” my fifteen-year old sister asked last month. As she rattled off the books, I was impressed by the diversity on the school-provided list. I was even more impressed when she listed a book I had not already read. A quick Goodreads search cleared that up. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe was published adult and adult books tend to fall by the wayside during the school year (my to-be-read pile is monstrous and that’s just YA and NF for my classroom library!).
Hmm, it sounds interesting, I thought to myself. Then, just as I was recommending it to my sister I realized why Katherine Howe’s name was ringing a bell. Her YA book Conversion was on my TBR list and I even had an e-arc on my phone.
“Megan, read the Physick book but then you should read the author’s newest book! I’ll read it this week and let you know what I think.”
I sat down with my ARC later that week and within a few pages I was pulled into the story. Howe deftly moves between two narratives and while this can sometimes be burdensome that’s not the case with CONVERSION. The mystery alternates between two stories and time periods: Colleen Rowley, a senior at a private all-girls school where a sudden illness is drawing attention from the media, and Ann Putman, an instigator of the Salem Witch Trials.
Colleen’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy is stress and anxiety-filled. College applications, class rankings, impending college acceptances and rejections have everyone on edge and then there’s classwork and homework on top of that. But it’s typical of the pressures high-achieving students are under so no one thinks it’s out of the ordinary. That is, until some girls in Colleen’s class are suddenly stricken by a mystery illness. What begins as a single student who appears to have a seizure in class quickly spreads. Hair loss, coughing fits, and involuntary tics are just some of the bizarre symptoms that strike the girls at St. Joan’s and the media begins to clamor for answers.
Colleen’s chapters alternate with those of Ann Putnam in 1706 as she makes a confession. Once at the center of the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Ann is burdened by guilt. The chapters include authentic dialogue from the Salem trials, which makes the narrative even more authentic. And what seems to begin as dual narratives may converge when Colleen must read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible for an extra credit assignment. Ann’s now-adult perspective as she confesses her part in the Salem Witch hysteria adds an interesting angle to an already complex narrative and I found myself really looking forward to her chapters.
There’s not much more I can say without ruining your reading experience, but I highly recommend Conversion. Howe’s dual narratives are both well-done but I was particularly fascinated by Ann Putnam’s story. Katherine Howe is a lecturer in the American Studies department at Cornell University and a descendant of two accused Salem witches, which she explains in the author’s note. Her expertise shines through in the chapters that focus on Ann Putnam, but even more intriguing is the way that Ann Putnam’s experience in Salem parallels Colleen and her classmates’ contemporary experience.
Conversion is a perfect read-aloud or read-along with The Crucible, which is required reading in most American high school English classes. The most often taught interpretation of The Crucible is that it’s a thinly veiled conversation about McCarthyism. However, another perspective is that the story is a look at what happens when gender, class, and power combine in a high-stress environment. Conversion shares this theme and I think students and teachers could have some much-needed conversations revolving around gender relations after reading Conversion. (FYI: If the topic of gender relations in YA interests you, then be sure to check out YA 101).
The parallels between Colleen and Ann’s story are striking: despite almost 300 years between them both girls beg the question “What can/will girls do when pushed to the brink?” (Note: be sure to read the author’s note at the end for even more information about Ann Putnam’s experience). I really hope to see American Lit and American History teachers reading Conversion alongside their teens because it’s ripe for conversation, and these are conversations we need to start having in more classrooms. We tend to view the girls and women of Salem as far-removed from modern girls. After all, Salem was a time of Puritanism and strict social hierarchy and teenage girls today don’t live with the same pressures and expectations. But just how much has changed?
Conversion is a great pick for readers who love historical fiction and those who love contemporary YA fiction. In addition to that genre blend, Howe expertly weaves the story of the illness at St. Joan’s and will keep readers guessing right until the last pages. Suspense, authentic historical voice, and a likable protagonist combined with an all-too-real look at the pressures of high school make this the perfect book for teen and adult readers alike.
Sarah Mulhern Gross is a National Board Certified English teacher who lives in New Jersey with her husband, two Australian Shepherds, and cat. She was born a member of the Nerdy Book Club. She was “that girl” at her younger siblings’ sporting events with her head in a book. You know, the antisocial one. :) She has been teaching Freshman World Literature and English IV at a STEM high school in NJ since 2010. She previously taught sixth grade Language Arts in New Jersey. Sarah blogs at www.thereadingzone.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter @thereadingzone. She promises to start blogging and tweeting more once she unpacks all the boxes from her recent move!